04/02/14 — Merger faces new scrutiny

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Merger faces new scrutiny

By Steve Herring
Published in News on April 2, 2014 1:46 PM

East Wayne Fire Chief Linwood Earl Sauls Tuesday said he was "surprised" and "disappointed" that the proposed administrative merger of his department and the New Hope Fire Department had been delayed after last-minute opposition surfaced, even though the issue has been public knowledge for many months.

Sauls said that he felt "blindsided" by comments made during Tuesday morning's public hearing before Wayne County commissioners -- comments he said failed to provide an accurate account of what the merger would mean.

The consolidation does not change any district lines, close any fire stations, or change how the departments respond, he pointed out.

The opposition, rather, is a matter of another department wanting a major tax-revenue generating area that has been in the East Wayne Fire Service District for 50 years, he said.

The controversy was sparked by comments made by Ralph LeGrand of Lancaster Pointe Drive, Pikeville, and Rick Tharrington, Saulston Fire Department board chairman.

LeGrand spoke against the merger, saying that the subdivision he lives in off True Vine Road would be better served by being in the nearby Saulston Fire Service District.

Tharrington said that fire districts need to be based on sound firefighting principles.

"That is why I am here today," he said. "I am not in favor of consolidating the fire district as proposed today. The lines are based on friendships and not on sound response times.

"The lines on True Vine are an example. Each end of the road is in the Saulston Fire District with the middle proposed to be in New Hope's district. They would have to drive through one district to get to another. That is not sound principle."

Sauls reiterated that no district lines would change and that the area in question would continue to be served by the East Wayne Fire Department.

However, the controversy prompted commissioners to table the proposed consolidation for two weeks.

No one spoke against a similar consolidation of the Faro and Eureka fire departments. That consolidation was unanimously approved by commissioners.

The consolidations have been discussed for years.

The talk became more serious after the mergers were recommended by Pennsylvania-based Volunteer Fire Insurance Services, which was hired by the county to study the operations of the county's volunteer fire departments.

All four stations will remain open. The plan does not change any existing district lines.

The former East Wayne station will be renamed New Hope Station 2/East Wayne. The merged Faro-Eureka department will be renamed Northeast Volunteer Fire Department.

Tuesday's public hearing had to be held prior to consolidation to consider new response districts for tax purposes.

LeGrand said he had received a letter concerning the proposed merger about a month ago, but had set it aside. After finally reading the letter, LeGrand said he took it upon himself to drive to the Saulston and New Hope fire stations to get an idea of distance and response time.

Saulston is much closer, about three-and-a-half miles, and the subdivision where he is president of the homeowners association should be given to Saulston, he said.

LeGrand said he did not know how the county had arrived at giving it, instead, to New Hope.

He also wanted to know if Saulston had been approached about merging.

Wayne County Commissioners Chairman Wayne Aycock told him the county had not been involved in the discussions. The decision was between East Wayne and New Hope, he said.

However, Sauls said that LeGrand failed to mention that the East Wayne Fire Station, that will remain open, is only about one-and-a-half miles from the subdivision.

During the meeting, Commissioner Bill Pate asked Sauls if the districts lines would remain the same.

Sauls said that was correct and that he would call off the merger if it meant surrendering any territory.

Aycock said after the meeting that he "had and had not" been surprised by the opposition.

As he did during the hearing, Aycock said that commissioners had not forced the mergers and had not been involved in any of the negotiations between the fire departments.

It was all voluntary between the four departments, he said.

"You don't want to assume anything, but by it being all voluntary you would assume that it would be a smooth transition," he said. "Apparently there is some question. We will sit down with East Wayne, New Hope and certainly Saulston will be at the table and work this out. Again, I say the key to this is that it is all voluntary. The county is not pressuring anybody to consolidate."

Sauls said in the interview that the groups could meet, but that he still did not like the way it had been approached.

"They blindsided us," he said. "I thought that was very unprofessional. I didn't appreciate what they tried to pull, and I didn't appreciate all what they guy (LeGrand) from Langston Point said.

"If they are so interested they should have said something before now. It (consolidation) ain't just started, it has been in the works for a while, and they knew it had been in the works for a while."