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Apartment fire displaces 15 people in Middletown



AnnStreetfire1Press and Journal Photo by Dan Miller -- Fifteen people were displaced by a fire inside this apartment building in the 100 block of Ann Street on Thursday afternoon, June 18.


Fifteen people were displaced by a fire that broke out in an apartment building in the 100 block of Ann Street in Middletown at about 3:30 p.m. Thursday.


Families in the five apartments are being put up in an area motel by the Red Cross, said Nick Hamilton, who had lived in the building for about two months with his girlfriend and two daughters. The Red Cross is also providing the victims with food and clothing.


The Red Cross has said it can put the families up for six nights. Hamilton said. After that  he does not know where his family will stay.


"It's going to be a tough 90 days for everybody," Hamilton said, referring to how much time he has been told it will take contractors to make the building habitable again.


The electric was turned off and all the tenants had to be moved out immediately for reasons of safety, said Middletown Assistant Fire Chief Kenny Whitebread. Whitebread had no damage estimate, but believes the building can be salvaged


Paul Geyer told The Press and Journal at the scene Friday morning that he has owned the building since about 1972. He is working with an insurance company and a contractor to rebuild.


Hamilton said the fire started in the apartment he lives in. His girlfriend and her youngest daughter, 2 years old, were in the apartment at the time. She and everyone else got out safely, Hamilton said. The fire also displaced four pets, he said.


Hamilton and Geyer said they were both told by investigators that preliminary indications are that the fire may have been started by a lit cigarette.


"They said it was careless smoking" by someone outside the building, Hamilton said.


The borough has been told that the cause of the fire was "accidental," borough spokesman Chris Courogen told The Press and Journal on Monday, June 22.


Whitebread would not speculate on the cause. He said the fire is being investigated by Dauphin County fire officials.


The building has five apartments, four in the front and one in the back. The structure was originally constructed in 1900, according to Dauphin County property records.


At least eight fire trucks and at least 50 firefighters were on the scene Thursday afternoon, Geyer estimated. 


Whitebread said Middletown was first on the scene after being dispatched at 3:18 p.m. They arrived to find fire to the rear on the first floor. Whitebread sent out a call for more manpower. He was worried about the toll the afternoon heat was taking on the firefighters.


Additional companies responded from Lower Swatara, Londonderry, Highspire, Hummelstown, Hershey, Elizabethtown, Chambers Hill, Paxtang, Lawnton, Steelton, and Swatara Twp.


Firefighters kept the fire from spreading - even though just eight inches separated Geyer's building from the other apartment building next door.


"They made a quick stop" of the fire, Whitebread said.


Hamilton said his girlfriend's 12-year-old daughter "lost everything" from the fire. The two-year-old's brand new twin bed was destroyed, he said. He had no insurance to cover the items.


Last Updated on Monday, 22 June 2015 14:51

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New York Times submits request for e-mails about water, sewer lease


Why is the New York Times interested in Middletown’s water and sewer lease deal?

The newspaper apparently is looking into the deal, based on a Right To Know request that the New York Times has filed with Middletown, borough spokesman Chris Courogen told Middletown Borough Council on Monday, June 15.

Courogen posted on the borough's Facebook page on June 16 that the newspaper is requesting "e-mails between borough officials and staff members and professionals advising the borough, including its solicitor" McNees Wallace & Nurick regarding the lease deal. Lawyers with McNees Wallace & Nurick were intimately involved in the process that resulted in the borough eventually entering into a 50-year lease of its water and sewer system to United Water, a French-owned company whose U.S. operations are based in New Jersey.

Courogen, the borough’s Right To Know officer, did not provide details to the council regarding the nature of the newspaper’s request. However, Courogen asked council for a “contingency” in which he could seek legal advice on the Right to Know request from another law firm, if necessary.

Courogen said he does not want to seek advice from McNees Wallace & Nurick, as the law firm itself is in part the subject of the Right to Know request, and that the borough needs to avoid “even the appearance of a conflict” of interest.

No one from McNees Wallace & Nurick was present at the council meeting.

Council approved Courogen’s recommendation for a contingency of up to $5,000 that would allow him to contract, if necessary, for legal advice from Audrey Buglione, an attorney whom Courogen said had been an appeals officer in the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, which handles Right to Know requests at the state level.

“I don’t know of anyone else who specializes in that area,” Courogen said. Her fee would be $175 an hour, he said. The $5,000 would allow for up to 28 hours, Courogen said.

Mayor James H. Curry III said that Buglione once worked for McNees Wallace & Nurick. Courogen said Buglione worked for the firm six years ago before she worked for the state. He contended she is sufficiently removed from the law firm that there would be “no conflict” today.

According to her public profile on Linkedin, Buglione worked as an associate with McNees Wallace & Nurick from June 2006 to August 2008.

Courogen when asked by The Press and Journal why The New York Times is interested in the Middletown water and sewer lease deal said that is a question that needs to be put to The New York Times reporter making the request, whom Courogen declined to identify.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 June 2015 17:56

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Lease the electric system?


Electric slide

A committee to explore future options for what to do with Middletown’s borough-owned electric distribution system was formed on Monday, June 15 by council President Christopher McNamara.

The committee will consist of councilors Michael Bowman, John Brubaker and Robert Louer, who are members of council’s public works committee, plus Councilor Ben Kapenstein, who chairs council’s finance committee.

No timetable or deadline was set for when the committee is to come back to the full council with recommendations.

The forming of the committee by McNamara followed a motion by Bowman calling for the borough solicitor to draft a Request for Proposals (RFP) for sale or lease of the borough electrical system.

Under Bowman’s motion, the RFP would have been presented to council on July 6 for approval for advertisement. Bowman’s motion also called for council to create a special committee to deal with the RFP.

Bowman’s motion had not been listed as an action item on the agenda for the June 15 meeting. Bowman brought it up as part of his report to the full council on activities of the public works committee.

The motion clearly came as a surprise to several council members and to Mayor James H. Curry III.

“I think it’s premature” to move ahead with an RFP on the electric system without council knowing the reasons for why the action is being taken," Kapenstein said. “What are we doing this for?”

Bowman said he is concerned about state legislative proposals that could potentially result in a loss of the existing amount of local control that the borough now has over its electric system. For example, he pointed to legislation that could prohibit the borough from transferring money from the electric fund to the general fund.

He compared this to legislation that had been passed several years ago that blocked the transfer of funds from municipal water and sewer accounts to municipalities’ general fund. Last September, council approved a 50-year lease of the borough’s water and sewer operations to United Water, a private company. The lease of the water and sewer systems became effective on Jan. 1.

In addition, proposals have been introduced in the state legislature that would put all municipally-owned electrical systems in Pennsylvania –including Middletown’s – under control of the Public Utility Commission.

“We need to be ahead of the game for this,” Bowman said. He suggested that the process would be similar to the one undertaken by council that eventually resulted in the leasing of the water and sewer systems to United Water. That process began with council forming a special committee to explore either leasing or selling the systems.

However, the water and sewer lease was undertaken for the specific objectives of the borough paying off its pension obligation and paying off its general obligation debt, Kapenstein said.

While he said he did not oppose exploration of the idea, Kapenstein said council should know what the objectives would be for selling or leasing the electric distribution system before it commits the borough to spending a lot of money. He estimated that developing an RFP alone would cost at least $5,000. Bowman argued that the borough needs to at least know the value of its electric system.

Curry questioned Bowman on when he had decided to bring up the issue. “I had no idea it was coming,” Curry said. “It warrants a little bit more consideration.”

Councilor Anne Einhorn agreed, saying that council should not move forward without getting public input on the idea.

If council is not careful, leasing or selling the system could result in the same loss of local control over electric rates that the borough is trying to avoid, cautioned Councilor John Brubaker.

Bowman’s motion ultimately failed 4-3; with Brubaker, Kapenstein, Einhorn and Councilor Scott Sites voting no. Bowman, Louer and McNamara supported the motion.

McNamara then prodded Sites to introduce a new motion that would create a committee that would work on developing on RFP. Sites said he agreed with forming an exploratory committee, but with no specific objective or mandate attached.

In that case, McNamara said no motion was needed and he could form such a committee on his own as council president.

After the meeting, Sites said he had no problem forming a committee to explore future options for the electric system, as long as the outcome was not preordained in any way.

Bowman left shortly after the meeting without speaking to reporters. However, McNamara told members of the media that the borough is facing a cost of up to $15 million to replace its existing substations at Spruce and Mill streets with a new proposed substation in Woodland Hills.

The Mill Street substation was damaged by flooding 2011 and remains in a flood zone. Consulting engineers have recommended that the most cost-effective strategy to replace the Mill Street station with one that is outside the flood zone is to combine the Spruce and Mill street stations into a new facility that would be located in Woodland Hills.

In December, Woodland Hills developer David Stubbs proposed “a public-private partnership” in which the new substation at Woodland Hills would be funded and built in conjunction with his plan to construct 200 luxury apartments at the site. The substation would be funded up front and then leased back to the borough.

However, Stubbs has not yet come back to the borough with a more specific proposal, at least not anything that has been released publicly.

Council needs to explore leasing the system as a potential alternative to the Woodland Hills deal, or to having to take out general obligation debt to pay for the new substation, McNamara said.

Otherwise, “you are looking at either a significant tax increase or doubling the electric rate. You have to explore all options,” McNamara said.

McNamara said he would oppose selling the electric system. A lease, similar to the deal with the borough worked with United Water, would allow the borough to receive a large up-front payment that could be used to fund the new substation and associated improvements to the electrical system, McNamara said.

Leasing the system would allow the borough to continue owning the electrical system assets and maintaining local control over rates, which McNamara said is imperative in a town where over half the residents are renters. Just under 48 percent of borough residents rent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. McNamara also contended that leasing the system would reduce operating costs for the borough, improve the ability to make upgrades and make the electrical system more “viable” overall.

He also noted that looking at other options for the electric department is among recommendations included in the Early Intervention Plan that council approved in 2013.

The plan reads, in part: “We recommend the borough review the current existing benefits and detriments of maintaining its own electric department and assess whether or not it makes sense to continue operating its own electric department.”


Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 June 2015 15:13

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Council agrees to seek grant for new Kids' Kastle


Middletown Borough Council voted on Monday, June 15 to apply for a $103,169 grant from the state for a major refurbishing of Kid’s Kastle in Hoffer Park.

The borough would use the grant to replace the wooden structure in the park with one that is made of metal and plastic furnishings, said Borough Manager Tim Konek.

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 June 2015 14:57

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Steel-High coach charged with DUI

Highspire Mayor John Hoerner implored the Steelton-Highspire School Board to take action against boys’ basketball coach Rick Binder, who faces DUI and other charges stemming from a traffic accident in Harrisburg in April, according to court records.

The charges against Binder, who lives in Steelton, made the school district and both towns – Steelton and Highspire – look bad, Hoerner told the board during a board meeting on Monday, June 8.

“He is no role model for these kids,” Hoerner said.

Harrisburg police charged Binder on Tuesday, June 2 following an accident around 6:30 p.m. on April 15 in the 1900 block of North Cameron Street, according to court records filed with District Judge Robert Jennings III.

Binder was charged with DUI-highest rate, DUI, reckless driving, involvement in an accident involving damage to an attended vehicle and involvement in an accident involving damage to an unattended vehicle. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Friday, July 17 before Jennings.

Court records said Binder had a blood-alcohol level of .193, and charged that he did not stop and render aid after the accident.

Binder returned for the 2014-2015 season in his third stint at Steelton-Highspire and led the boys’ basketball team to the District 3 Class AAA title, Binder’s third with the Rollers.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 09 June 2015 15:28

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