By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item
LAURELTON — Four years after a social club embezzlement case swayed 20 of 35 firefighters to quit, the once-decertified Union County West End Fire Company has been reborn with a force of nearly 50 volunteers.
“We voted to disband it,” said Stephen Buttorff, the Hartley Township supervisors chairman who represents the municipality on a new fire company board.
In 2008, with 57 percent of firehouse members bailing for the Mifflinburg Hose Company in response to the embezzlement of their social club funds, township officials deemed West End unable to fully protect the municipality, Buttorff said, and worked with Mifflinburg to keep a truck in its township firehouse.
But no one wanted to give up completely on West End.
“We resolved to sit down and come up with a plan to resolve all these issues,” Buttorff said, and in 2011 that’s what all parties did.
And since September, the Union County West End Fire Company is back under Fire Chief Mike Buoy.
According to its Facebook page, the fire company responded to six incidents by mid-October. It was the lead responder on a recent house fire in Millmont and assists in all calls in its reach in western Union County.
Buttorff wasn’t surprised he was the only official willing to talk about West End to The Daily Item.
“It’s been a long story, and everyone is weary of media at this point,” he said. “That said, we’re glad ... we’re back in business.”
Met with attorney general
In 2011, Hartley Township supervisors went to Harrisburg to meet with fire company officials and a representative of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. The attorney general became involved because the company, unable to meet its charitable purpose of providing fire protection in Hartley Township, no longer qualified as a nonprofit, which the attorney general oversees. The office sought to revoke the company’s nonprofit status, a case that landed in Union County Court as West End members fought the move, saying it was unclear what response the attorney general wanted.
“We sat down with a set of goals, and it took almost a year until we finally got it all done, approved, everything,” Buttorff said.
“What we came up with was the West End Fire Company would remain as it is,” he said. “The social club would split off and create a new entity. It didn’t move anywhere.”
Lease covers 99 years
The fire company made a 99-year lease with the social club. The social club pays the fire company; it matches the tax millage to the firehouse and gives about 75 percent of earnings from small games of chance to West End as well, as the state mandates.
Township millage collections on the firehouse to date are $13,000.
“This was not easy,” Buttorff said. “This took a year to pound this all out because of splitting things up, and bank accounts, and getting liquor licenses transferred. Then having the attorney general and judge approve it … it took forever.”
West End firemen own all the land, the building, everything, Buttorff said.
“They will take care of maintenance and insurance,” he said.
Since day one of the fire company’s existence, the social club basically ran everything, Buttorff said.
“We wanted it separated,” he said.
In June 2008, more than half of the fire company’s 35 volunteers quit in the wake of a $37,757 embezzlement scandal involving the company’s former treasurer between June 2006 and June 2007. Volunteers claimed the arrest highlighted decades of contention with the social club in the way the fire company was funded.
“There was always animosity there that the firemen were not in control,” said Buttorff, a Hartley Township supervisor for more than 30 years.
The embezzlement was a last straw.
“The firemen left because the embezzlement pointed out that the social club had money,” he said. “They always said they didn’t. When that happened, it showed they did.”
And with that, the fire company was decertified for about four years, he said.
In the resurgence, a new board was created that includes community members. Buttorff represents the township supervisors.
There is also a township businessman, and a community member at large, among others, as well as fire company members.
Right now the township is acting as the fire company’s treasurer because it has the financial expertise and is bonded, Buttorff said.
All the firemen who left for Mifflinburg have come back “and are working out great,” Buttorff said. “Everyone is actually getting along. The firemen are encouraging people to go to the social club. Everyone is working together, and the fire company meets with the social club quarterly to make sure everything is OK.”
Since the reorganization, at least 10 new firemen have joined and two or three more have put in applications for West End.
It’s also back in the charitable business, having dinners to raise money, doing toy and food drives for kids and families during various holidays. A spaghetti dinner took place Saturday night in further fundraising and social efforts, one of many the firehouse has done.
“People were leaning to get rid of the social club all together, but that wasn’t going to resolve anything,” Buttorff said. “We need them for the fundraising. Where are we going to come up with the money?”
Right now the operating budget for the fire company is $55,000.
“That’s just our starting budget, that’s just to exist,” Buttorff said.
But people in Hartley Township want this to happen and are helping. Pam Hackenburg answered the phone at the social club Friday, and said while it isn’t the sponsor of the spaghetti dinner, people were helping out as much as they can.
“We will be there to support it,” she said. “We’re all going to support the fire company.”
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