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Douglass Township Officials Preparing to Raze Firehouse
Written by Bradley Schlegel, Staff Writer

            Douglass Township officials are preparing to knock down the building that houses the Gilbertsville Fire and Rescue Company. The entire structure has fallen into disrepair, according to Manager Pete Hiryak.

            "The building has a tremendous amount of problems," Hiryak said.

Rather than repair the facility, located at 1454 E. Philadelphia Ave., the board hopes to replace it with an emergency services building. A plan to construct a one-story structure to house the township's police department and the fire department is close to completion, according to Hiryak. He described it as functional and efficient.

            Supervisors Chairman Josh Stouch expressed support for the creation of a fire tax to help fund the project, which is expected to cost between $2.1 million and $2.5 million. He said demolition could commence in April.

            In 2014, a Montgomery County Pleas Court judge awarded the township ownership of the building, following a financial dispute between the fire company and the social club. The parties separated in 2005.

            In June of 2017, the supervisors voted to evict the social club, known as Gilbertsville Fire Company No. 1, from the facility after local authorities received a complaint about the social club's handling of small games of chance five months earlier.

            Municipal officials determined last year that the building could not be renovated following a walk through in May of 2109. According to Stouch, two professional engineers and the township's code enforcement officer delivered the recommendation. He also said the excessive damage has forced township officials to cancel voting in the facility's banquet hall.

            "We had no idea the building was crumbling," said Stouch, who has served on the township's Emergency Services Board since 2013.

            A Douglassville engineer who toured the facility identified cracks developing in the walls and a leaking roof. John Ruff, in a memo to Hiryak, also concluded that major upgrades will be required to improve energy efficiency and the electrical, plumbing and mechanical systems.

            In his memorandum, the engineer found the building to be in "fair condition". He also observed "evidence of settlement of the exterior masonry walls throughout the building, separation of the brick veneer from the masonry walls in several areas of the front of the building, and numerous areas where the roof is leaking."

            Apparently, the social club – which was dissolved soon after its eviction – made the decision to save money by not making any repairs, according to the manager. He said several small issues, involving the air conditioning and heating systems and doors, became major problems. According to Stouch, the organization completed "next to no maintenance" at the fire house.

            "I can't say the township devoted a lot of time to building maintenance until we took it over," Hiryak said. "We thought the social side was making the necessary repairs."

Charles Markofski, a local attorney who represented the social club, claims the organization did "an incredible job" maintaining the structure from its opening in 1974 until 2005, when the firefighters and the social side separated.

            Hiryak said the township has spent several thousand dollars attempting to repair the leak, but could never catch up with the issue. Major roof leaks have existed for the last 10 years, according to former fire Chief Ricky Smith. A heavy accumulation of snow several years ago compromised the structure of the flat roof, according to the engineer. Ruff wrote that it "sagged several inches until the snow was removed".

            According to Stouch, the tanker room – which was added in 1982 – remains usable and safe "for now," but shouldn't be occupied any longer than necessary. He said the exterior walls show several step cracks at the corners, windows and doors openings.

"Two of the step cracks exceed normal offset and deviation standards," according to the letter from Ruff. He stated that they indicate a footing failure. 

            On Monday, Markofski stated the social club did everything it could to maintain the building. He explained that its members worked very hard to raise money for the benefit of the fire company and the facility until the parties split.

"This was a powerhouse organization," the lawyer said. "They had a lot of money in various accounts."

Kollar, identified as the organization's former president during a supervisor meeting in June of 2017, did not respond to a Facebook message.  

            A plan developed by the township's newly created Emergency Services Board, with assistance from Gorski Engineering, a Collegeville firm, calls for a structure with more frontage than the current building on a smaller footprint. According to Stouch, the new structure will allow the future incorporation of emergency medical services as well as the capacity to expand in all directions.

            "We're getting very close," Hiryak said. "We're still figuring out what we want."

            The most recent proposal carries a similar design as the township's public works building and calls for 6,000 square feet for the township's police department and 4,000 square feet of administrative, storage and training space for the fire fighters, as well as the capacity to store nine or 10 apparatus.

            "This facility will bring police and fire departments into the 21st century," the supervisor said. "We're already there in terms on training and equipment."

            According to Stouch, the local police have operated in a portion of the township building since the mid-1980s. The 12-person department outgrew its current space five years ago, according to Chief Barry Templin. The new police station will include an interview room, a larger holding area, a sally port and an evidence garage, as well as a properly functioning locker room and restrooms.

            Templin said the proposal will provide adequate work space for his officers as well as enough room to hold evidence and files. However, the facility will not include holding cells, according to the chief.

            The board has applied for a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant, administered by the Commonwealth's Office of the Budget, through state Rep. Marcy Toepel (R-147th Dist.). The township is seeking $4 million, according to Hiryak.

            According to Stouch, the board could vote on a new fire ordinance next month. During the Feb. 18 public meeting, the members directed township Treasurer Cindy O'Donnell to investigate the impact of a dedicated fire tax at a rate of one mill.

            "As a conservative Republican, raising taxes is the last thing I want to do," the supervisor said. "But we're required to provide fire protection to the residents of the township. The fire fighters need proper equipment and an appropriate place to store it."





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