Just when you thought things in Rice Township couldn’t get worse, Donald Leo Bly, onetime Rice Township Fire Chief, was charged on March 7 with stealing $4,395.43 from the checking accounts belonging to the Rice Township Volunteer Fire Department. I first met Mr. Don Bly this same week in March 2012 when he took exception to comments I wrote in this column about the upcoming Rice Township Easter Egg Hunt approved with a budget of $800. The Rice Township Fire Company had offered their services to put on the hunt, as there was no Rice recreation committee. Bly and another fire company member phoned the Eagle within hours of the paper hitting the newsstands to complain that we were slandering them, and they were volunteers doing a good deed.
The Rice Supervisors, who paid for supplies including bicycles, fishing poles and candy from the Rice Recreation Fund, financed the hunt. The fund receives regular deposits from developers who sell lots in Rice Township. The developers are taxed for the privilege of doing business in Rice. The Recreation Fund is tax money.
I had taken issue last year with supervisors George Venesky and Miller Stella, who were spending far more on their 2012 Easter Egg Hunt than any other Mountaintop municipality. I found bicycles and fishing poles to be excessive prizes.
I apologized to Mr. Bly and told him we appreciated his Fire Company’s efforts to volunteer to put on the event. Eventually Rice Township paid $1600 for the $800 Easter Egg Hunt they had authorized. Accountability for the excess was never explained.
The next time I communicated with Bly was in July, when I received information that the Rice Volunteer Fire Company would not be holding its annual three-day fund raising bazaar this year because of the lack of volunteers. Within a couple of hours of our July 4 edition hitting the newsstand, our office received a poster advertising the event. My sources indicated that the fire company roster was diminished due to volunteers resigning and or signing up to serve with other local companies.
I began to dig into the real situation at Rice and Bly assured me that his company was training every Wednesday night and things were just fine.
The bazaar was held and I attended with my family.
Weeks went by and information surfaced that the Rice Volunteer Fire Company had not complied with Pennsylvania State Auditor General for filing their financial records. Thousands of dollars that the Rice Fire Department was entitled to for their operations were being withheld from the Foreign Fire Insurance Premium fund. All of the Auditor General’s reports and correspondence were available online.
Bly told me he was the “Acting” fire chief in July. By September when he came to the Rice Township Supervisors meeting to make an animated statement about a story published in the Mountaintop Eagle about the Fire Company’s financial troubles and minimal volunteer roster he identified himself as the “Fire Chief”.
Rice Fire Chief Don Bly began his presentation by taking issue with coverage of the Fire Relief Association’s non-compliance with the Pennsylvania State Auditor General as published in the September 5, 2012 edition of the Mountaintop Eagle.
“I am not the Acting Fire Chief. I am the Fire Chief. We are going to clear a few things up that were in the newspaper the other day, which really upset me quite a bit,” he began.
“Undocumented expenditures? We have no undocumented expenditures. That is false,” Bly stated.
“All our active members, we have 22. Four are juniors. Everybody else is trained in some sort of fire or vehicle rescue,” he continued
“We went to the township supervisors. We needed help. We had a mess of paperwork and none of us knew where to start with it. Mr. Stella, Mr. Venesky, Donnie Armstrong, Attorney Higgs helped us 100% as much as we needed getting through all that paperwork. Miller Stella went as far to join the fire department and has received training already. He is currently able to drive and I believe he is going through pumps class,” Bly emphasized.
I stated in my column at that time, “The Rice Volunteer Fireman’s Relief Association and the Rice Volunteer Fire Company are autonomous organizations of each other and Rice Township and its board of supervisors. All receive tax money for their operations.”
A contract drawn up in December 2011 between the three parties surfaced in August, when the board received notification from the Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General that the 2012 Allocation of the Foreign Fire Insurance Premium Tax would be withheld as long as previously identified findings were not rectified. The bottom line, according to the Auditor General was failure to maintain financial records. In the course of my investigation
last year I talked to the current Acting Chief Don Bly, the former chief Kevin Tombasco, and newly appointed Assistant Chief Paul Eyreman, who has served with the Wright Township Volunteer Fire Company and also owns property in Rice Township. No one was able to come up with a roster of who was certified in the Rice organization. I asked Rice Supervisor Chairman Miller Stella for input on the status of the Rice Fire Company as the township has empowered the Rice Fire Company to be the entity that will provide emergency services for them. I got no information from Stella, who told me to call the Rice Solicitor Bill Higgs.
I called Higgs, who gave me the most confusing quote I think I have ever received from someone I have interviewed: “I know what I know, but I don’t know what I don’t know. The fire company must take care of their own business. I am not prepared to give you answers to your questions.”
On March 7, 2013 Don Bly was charged with Theft by Deception-False Impression for writing checks to himself between June and December 2012 from the Rice Volunteer Fire Company’s checking account.
Supervisors Miller Stella and George Venesky maintained that business with the fire company was all above board all during the time that Bly was helping himself to the money. Stella did notify the Rice Police department in January that there was a possible theft of money from the fire department checking account. That there were multiple checks written out to Donald Bly but no record of the purchased equipment. Stella told police that Bly has been the acting Fire Department treasurer, and refuses to turn the checking account books back over to the fire department.
So far we have Bly as the Acting Chief, Chief and now the Acting Treasurer. He’s an actor all right. He is facing a criminal charge for his actions.
Venesky and Stella were negligent in not overseeing the fire department they are legally empowered to approve or disapprove for public safety. The township level is responsible for public safety. A lack of volunteers, and an inability to manage financial records should have been reason enough for them to step in fully a year before the Bly criminal charge was filed.
There is a huge problem with transparency in Rice Township. Public documents are routinely denied and residents told to file a Right to Know request. Those requests go into the file and are never seen again. I can testify to that from personal experience. Rice Township cannot currently keep their own organization in order. The Rice Fire Company is sadly the spawn of that reality.
Just south of Mountaintop the Valley Regional Fire Rescue was founded in 2005 when Butler Twp. Fire Co. and Conyngham Fire Co. merged to form one company to better protect the residents of the two municipalities. According to their web page they have over 50 active members ranging from junior firefighters, to the most senior members. It could be time for Rice to join with another strong established Mountaintop fire company to pool resources and personnel. Businesses change and so does public service.