Judge denies AG seizure of Independent’s assets

The Lycoming County Court of Common Pleas denied a petition from the state to involuntarily dismiss South Williamsport’s Independent Fire Co. No. 1 and give its assets to other fire companies in the area.

The order, given recently by President Judge Nancy L. Butts, will give the company the opportunity to continue fighting fires outside of South Williamsport and allow it to keep its equipment.

Two years ago the borough’s other two fire departments, Citizens and First Ward firehouses, merged together to form a single, South Williamsport Fire Department. Independent refused to join the merger, which resulted in the borough decertifying the company from fighting fires within the area.

The office of Attorney General Joshua D. Shapiro filed a petition last year to have the company dissolved and its assets distributed to other fire stations. The request from the Attorney General’s office rested on the idea that the company had ceased fighting fires in the borough, meaning that it no longer was a part of the charity it was made to do and its assets should be committed toward that purpose.

“The whole crux of getting the three departments here in the borough to merge was to be able to utilize the combined manpower and equipment,” said South Williamsport Borough Manager Stephen Cappelli. “We ended up with two thirds of that consolidated.”

In Butts’ order, she said there is no argument that Independent still functions despite not providing aid at local fires.

“It is undisputed that Independent still functions as an operating corporation, is in good standing with their accounting and is still recognized as a 501(c)(3),” according to the order.

As the company stands now, it is not fulfilling its original purpose of fighting fires, said Butts. However, because of its good standing within the community, there is no reason why it cannot fulfill that purpose outside of South Williamsport.

“Involuntarily dissolving Independent and giving all their assets to a similarly situated company would not result in an equitable remedy, and instead would be a perversion of the doctrine, that would amount to an asset grab,” the order said.

Cappelli disagreed with the decision, stating the assets would be going back into the borough to fight fires.

“Those assets are going to a unified South Williamsport Fire Department whose mission is to serve the citizens of this community,” Cappelli said.

Shapiro’s office stated it will be reviewing the court’s decision, but Cappelli said the borough hopes it will make an appeal.

“We anticipate that the Attorney General will be appealing the decision,” Cappelli said. “It’s a shame that the borough, the state and Independent are wasting money on attorneys and litigation and not sitting down and figuring out how to best service the borough from a public safety standpoint.”

With Butts’ denial of the petition, Independent will be able to affiliate with another borough or township to continue operating as a firefighting agency.

Independent and its attorney were contacted for comment but were both unavailable.