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Feds say they are not forcing island cabin removal

cabinphoto4 13 16SLIDEPress and Journal Photo by Eric Wise -- A summer cabin on Shelley Island.

York Haven Power Company was granted a 40-year extension on its license to operate a hydroelectric generation station along the Susquehanna River in December under conditions established by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

 

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 12 April 2016 16:20

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Lower Swatara, police wrestle with hiring issue

Lower Swatara Twp. police officers and their supporters have quizzed the township’s commissioners several times this year about when a new officer will be hired to replace two cops who left the department in 2015. 

Following months of questions, the commissioners’ plans for the police force remain unclear – when, and if, an officer will be hired.

While “public safety is top priority’’ for the township, the commissioners first must “try to resolve the collective bargaining issues’’ involved in a new police contract reached through arbitration in 2015, and “objectively and deliberately determine when it is appropriate to hire a new officer,’’ said Commissioner Jon G. Wilt, who leads the commissioners’ police committee, in a statement he read at a recent township meeting.

“Unfortunately, these issues do take time to resolve in a matter that is best for our community,’’ Wilt said in his statement.

The new police contract resulted from binding arbitration in the spring of 2015. Michael Miller of Eckert Seamans, a law firm that represented the township in labor negotiations, said the police association had refused to negotiate with the township for negotiations, resulting in an impasse and a need for arbitration.

However, Lower Swatara Police Chief Richard Brandt said it was the township that refused to meet with the police association. Two other township sources familiar with the bargaining confirmed that the township was unwilling to hold any talks with the union, which led to the arbitration. 

“There was no negotiation involved,” said township police Sgt. Daniel Tingle, a police association leader. “They never spoke to us.”

The collective bargaining agreement that resulted from arbitration allowed Lower Swatara to stop paying for police officers’ health insurance after they retire – for any officer hired after the agreement was put in place in 2015. Because new officers would not receive this benefit, starting officers’ salaries were increased.

The new agreement resulted in four patrolmen who were already on the force, hired in June 2013, earning a base salary of $45,856 – lower than the new starting salary of $48,000 for a new hire.

The 2016 budget
Brandt submitted a 2016 budget to commissioners that added $4,000 to the base salary of the remaining officers hired in June 2013. His budget request included the same number of officers he started with in 2015, which meant replacing Stephen Sassani, who retired July 1, and Justin Dinger, who left the department Sept. 4 as he sought a career change. Two replacement police vehicles were also included in the budget requests.

Brandt submitted his budget to township manager Samuel Monticello, who is no longer employed by the township. Monitcello said the job of approving budget requests lies with the commissioners, so Brandt’s proposal in its entirety was given to the township’s finance committee, which includes Michael Davies, the commissioner who serves as the committee’s chairman, and Tom Mehaffie, the president of the commissioners. 

The budget presented to the full board of commissioners included money to replace just one of the two officers who had left, one of two police vehicles and none of the $4,000 to address the discrepancy in pay between 3-year veteran officers and new hires. Mehaffie said on April 6 that increases to the existing officers’ base pay were not considered during the budget process.

Following a budget session on Nov. 4, Brandt told the commissioners that he had the information ready if the commissioners intend to hire a new officer.

In 2016, questions begin
By Jan. 20, Commissioner Laddie Springer asked about hiring the new officer in the budget, and township manager Anne Shambaugh, who had started working for the township Dec. 1, said she needed information from Brandt to begin the process.

Residents asked the commissioners about the apparent delays in hiring a police officer during meetings on Feb. 3, 17 and March 2. On Feb. 17, Mehaffie said the police committee was working on it.

On March 2, Shambaugh said she was continuing to gather information, mentioning that she was looking at the township police needs for manpower. Mehaffie thanked Shambaugh for “expediting things.”

Commissioners offer their side
Wilt’s statement, which he read during a meeting on March 16, said the township was dealing with many increasing costs that forced it to eliminate post-retirement health insurance benefits for its employees, which included newly-hired police officers following an arbitration decision.

“Newly-hired officers will receive a $3,500 base salary increase over the current junior patrol officers, who will continue to receive post-retirement healthcare benefits,” Wilt said. “The post-retirement healthcare benefits enjoyed by these officers has a value of at least $200,000 per officer over the period between an officer’s retirement and his or her Medicare eligibility.”

Wilt’s statement did not say how the decision, which was in the township’s favor, had prevented the commissioners from hiring a police officer. However, prior to an April 6 township meeting, Shambaugh said Brandt “is waiting for some police officers to get back to us with a proposal made to them.”

Tingle said the police union has an issue with the pay increase to new officers only.

The Press And Journal has been unable to confirm that any offer has been made to the four officers hired in 2013, and the offer was not discussed April 6.

More explanation
In response to continuing questions about hiring a new police officer, the commissioners listened to a report April 6 from Miller as the township’s attorney during labor negotiations. 

Miller said he does not know why the pay difference has become an issue in hiring a new officer, but that it has. He defended the existing contract as a “hard fought” victory for the township and cautioned the commissioners against “blowing up” the decision.

“This was one of the big successes in the arbitration,” Miller said. He called the benefit “unsustainable” and said, “We can’t afford it,” although the township has fully funded its retirement benefits for all its employees.

The commissioners provided a list of salaries and overtime earning paid to each of their police officers. According to the list, Lower Swatara paid more than $80,000 to three officers, including the police chief in 2014. The township paid three officers $70,000 to $80,000, four officers $60,000 to $70,000 and five officers $40,000 to $60,000.

Based on information received through a Right to Know request, Steelton paid two officers more than $100,000 for the same year, four officers $90,000 to $100,000 and four officers $80,000 to $90,000 for that year. These figures, for both Lower Swatara and Steelton, indicate the gross wages that account for various times of overtime, shift differential pay, holiday pay and other payments reported on the officers’ W-2 tax statements. 

Commissioner Todd Truntz asked Miller about the pay of Lower Swatara’s police. “I keep hearing that our officers are the lowest paid,” Truntz told Miller.

“They start out at a little lower number, but they move up pretty quickly,” Miller said. “After three, four, five years, they are at the 50 , 60, 70 thousand-dollar range.”

Lower Swatara officers’ base salary is $48,000 at hire in the new contract. In comparison, police officers at nearby departments are paid $55,000 in Middletown, $57,560 in Highspire, $53,271 in Steelton, and $68,712 in Swatara Twp., according to figures provided by the neighboring municipalitieis.

In Derry Twp., a new hire is paid $43,923 while on probation, after which his salary increases to $66,000. It would take a Lower Swatara officer more than eight years to reach that $66,000 base pay under the current contract.

A new hire in Lower Swatara will receive $54,000 base pay after three years of service. Officers with three years of service will be paid $65,700 in Middletown, $69,191 in Highspire, $64,234 in Steelton, and $68,712 in Swatara Township, and $73,164 Derry Twp.

Will the township hire a police officer?
Lower Swatara has reduced its police force from 17 officers in 2012 to 16 from 2013 to 2015. The township budgeted for 15 in this year, but one position remains unfilled. Shambaugh said inclusion in the budget does not require the township to spend money on a line item of any kind.

“They have been reducing the force by attrition and leaving vacancies unfilled for some time before filling them,” Tingle said of the commissioners.

Miller made a case for not hiring a new officer during his appearance on April 6.

“To a certain degree, the statistics with regard to the police…raise a reasonable question whether the board wants to consider hiring an officer,” he said. He cited statistics from the Lower Swatara police, including a drop of calls for service in 2016 and a low use of the police overtime budget. He noted the cost of a decision to hire an officer, with a base salary of $48,000 and $27,000 in other costs. 

“I am not sure I see the math that requires a new officer,” Miller said.

No commissioners commented on whether a new officer should be hired.



Last Updated on Thursday, 14 April 2016 14:56

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Borough's largest employer threatens to stop buying electricity from Middletown

  

A company that described itself as the largest employer in Middletown threatened during

borough council’s April 5 meeting to stop buying electricity from the borough and purchase

it from Met-Ed instead.

Stephen Gardner, an attorney representing Librandi’s Machine Shop, said that the price

Librandi’s pays to Middletown for electricity is “significantly above the market price for power.”

That is at variance from what council had been hearing in late 2015 and earlier this year

from its financial consultant, Mark Morgan. Morgan told council several times during

deliberations toward the 2016 budget that the rate that Middletown charges its customers

for electricity was as much as two cents below that being charged by companies like

Met-Ed and PPL.

Council in February raised the electric rate by 1 cent to help balance the 2016 budget.

Gardner said that Librandi’s by exercising its “legal right” to stop buying power from

Middletown and by switching to Met-Ed “can save millions of dollars in the long run,

especially given that Middletown has just increased its rates when Met-Ed’s rates are down.”

Switching would also allow Librandi’s to exercise a “customer choice” option to purchase

generation from a third-party provider, something Gardner said that Librandi’s also cannot

do now under the current arrangement with Middletown.

Librandi’s is one of the largest consumers of electricity in Middletown, Gardner said, adding

“In the last seven years Librandi’s has paid the borough some $2.5 million for electricity.”

Librandi’s paid the borough more than $370,000 for electricity in 2015, and if the company

leaves this year the borough stands to lose an estimated $400,000 in revenue in 2016,

Gardner said.

At the same time, Gardner offered the council one last opportunity to keep Librandi’s as a

customer.

“It is possible that the borough and Librandi’s could reach an accord - a win win - where

Librandi’s will pay market rate and the borough will continue to receive revenue,” Gardner

said.

“But for the last seven years the borough has refused to even meet with Librandi’s to

discuss electricity rates. Overture after overture has been made to Middletown, time after time Middletown has ignored Librandi’s….make no mistake about it, the blame falls to the borough for refusing to ever return a phone call, to answer a letter and refusing to even have a discussion with Librandi’s.”

Council President Ben Kapenstein said “I’d be happy to meet with you. I’ve never had the

opportunity.”

He also noted that former Councilor Greg Wilsbach had met with Librandi’s recently during

a session that Kapenstein was also to attend, but was unable to.

“You name the day, we will be there,” said Tom Librandi, chief operating officer of Librandi’s,

who was also at the council meeting.

Librandi said that his company has put “about $15 to $20 million” a year into the borough’s

economy. “That’s nothing to sneeze at.”

In other developments from the April 5 council meeting, council voted 7-0 to accept

Wilsbach’s resignation as a Second Ward councilor effective immediately. Wilsbach is

resigning because he has applied for the position of the borough public works director.

The borough will now accept letters of interest and resumes from Second Ward residents

who want to fill the council vacancy created by Wilsbach’s resignation. Council must act to

fill the seat by May 5, and plans to do so at its May 3 meeting, Kapenstein said.

Council also gave final approval to an ordinance abolishing the planning committee, and

establishing a planning commission. Councilor Robert Louer was the only one of seven

councilors present to vote against the measure.

The borough will now accept applications from Middletown residents interested in serving

on the five-member planning commission. Applications will be accepted over the next 30

days.

Council for the next 30 days will also accept applications from residents interested in

serving on the Olmsted Regional Recreation Board. One seat is open to be filled on the

board.

In other actions, council:

- approved a contract with the Humane Society allowing for the police department to drop off stray dogs.

- Appointed John Hevel to serve as acting public works director until someone is hired to replace the previous acting director, Chris Burkholder, whose resignation is effective Thursday, April 7.

- Voted to advertise an ordinance that would replace the current pension system with a 401-K style defined contribution plan for all new hires. The ordinance is only binding upon management personnel, Kapenstein said.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 06 April 2016 11:08

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HARROWING: Fire sweeps through Holly Hall in Pineford; feds investigating cause; seeking tips, photos

frombelow4 6 16 2WEBPhoto by Bill Darrah-- Firefighters battle the blaze at Holly Hall from the ground.

 

 

When 90-year-old Isabelle Lehman looked out her window in her third-floor apartment in Holly Hall at the Villlage of Pineford on Sunday, April 3, she saw something that looked like a cloud drift across the lawn below.

It wasn’t a cloud – it was smoke. She looked up to see upper floor in flames.

She quickly called Dauphin County 9-1-1, and when a dispatcher asked her to stay on the line, she replied, “I can’t. I have to get out.’’ She grabbed her purse and left her apartment, her home for the past 30 years.

Flames ravaged the top of the five-story apartment building as firefighters from Middletown and several neighboring companies battled the blaze, which began around 11:30 a.m. Sunday.

Several law enforcement agencies, led by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are investigating the cause. Assisting are a Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal, the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Criminal Investigation Division and the borough, said Det. Mark Hovan, a spokesman for the Middletown Police Department. No one will be allowed back into Holly Hall for at least seven days because the fire is considered a “crime scene’’ until officials learn more about its cause, Hovan said.

Miraculously, no injuries were reported. “It certainly is a tragedy, but the thing I am most grateful for is that I have not heard of one injury, be it crew or residents,’’ said Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III. “That’s something I’m extremely thankful for.’’

Middletowners rushed to the rescue of fire victims, donating piles of clothing, toiletries, blankets – even toys – and food that was provided at an emergency shelter at the MCSO Building on Emaus Street. About 60 people arrived for aid, but everyone found a place to stay, said Dan Tobin, director of communications for the American Red Cross’ Central Pennsylvania Chapter.

The donations from local citizens were “phenomenal,’’ Tobin said. “The outpouring of support from this community is unbelievable,’’ he said, as fire victims wandered in and out of the MCSO Building.
Investigators are not close to determining the cause yet, said Sgt. Richard Hiester of the Middletown Police Department. It will be a week or more before anyone other than official investigators can get into Holly Hall, he said. The building is a health and safety hazard.

“The structural integrity of the building is in question at this point,” Hiester said. It is also wet inside the building, and with refrigerators now having been off for more than a day, spoiled food is starting to accumulate.

Residents with information that could help investigators are asked to call the police at 717-558-6900 or use the Nixle Tip Line. “Please do not assume the police are already aware of any particular fact. All tips will be investigated,” police said in a Nixle alert that was put out early Monday, April 4.
Holly Hall has 80 apartment units, of which 15 are “completely burnt out” and another 16 “horribly damaged,” Hiester said.

Thirty-two other units have water damage. That number could end up much higher, once investigators are able to get through all the apartments on the first and lower floors, Hiester said.

Dramatic photos of flames shooting from the top of the building, coupled with post-fire images resembling a bombed-out structure in a war zone, make it look as though the fire started in the top floor. But investigators need a lot more than just photos before making such a determination.
A forensics team is gathering evidence from inside the building that will subsequently be sifted through in painstaking detail, Hovan said.

As an example of how complicated a case like this can be, Hovan noted that the fire that destroyed Middletown’s landmark Mansion House in 2010 remains to this day an open, unsolved investigation.
“This takes time,” Hiester said. “There are no preliminary determinations. The only thing we know at this point is that there are a lot of people affected.”

One of the biggest challenges in trying to identify the cause of a fire like the one at Holly Hall is that the fire itself “consumes a lot of the evidence that may have determined how it was started,” said Steven Bartholomew, an ATF spokesman.

On top of that, the “suppression efforts” – basically the huge amount of water used to put out the fire – can damage evidence or render it unusable, he added.

ATF was brought in to lead the probe due to the size and scope of the investigation, Bartholomew said.
“Our presence doesn’t necessarily mean that a criminal act occurred,’’ he said. “It’s a fire investigation involving a large fire scene with a significant amount of damage.”

The ATF team includes agents and investigators brought in from the bureau’s Harrisburg office and field office in Washington, D.C., Bartholomew said. Among the team members are special agents who are designated as certified fire investigators, as well as a fire protection engineer and an electrical engineer.

Investigators will be interviewing Holly Hall residents, the owners and managers of Pineford, first responders and some of the many passersby who saw the fire and took photos and video on their cell phone or other camera. Investigators want to look at any video that may provide clues as to how and where the fire started.

Investigators will also comb through debris within Holly Hall. If necessary, some fire debris will be sent to an outside ATF lab for analysis.

ATF will stay involved in the investigation until one of three conclusions can be reached regarding the cause of the fire, Bartholomew said: Was the fire was accidental? Was it set intentionally? Can the cause ever be determined? There is no set timetable for how long it will take to arrive at one of those three conclusions, he said.

Word of the fire, and the plight of its victims, spread over Facebook on Sunday, and people began arriving at the MCSO Building with donations. There were piles of jackets and blankets, soap and new toothbrushes, cake and pizza, sliced turkey and ham and mashed potatoes.

“People came in droves,’’ said Dawn Knull, a Middletown Borough Council member, as she stood among donated supplies at the MCSO Building. The effort was not surprising, she said. “This is Middletown. Every disaster we have had, something like this happens. Middletown people come together.’’

For Lehman, the greatest necessity was a place to stay, and she found one – another apartment in Pineford, where she wants to remain. She left behind an apartment filled with memories – knickknacks and furniture she’s owned for decades. “I have good insurance, and I can buy new,’’ she said. “But I would hate to think I lost some things I’ve had a long time.’’

When she walked out the front door of Holly Hall, she was struck by the serenity. “It was very calm,’’ she said, until fire engines began to pull up and firefighters shouted for residents to evacuate the building.

Standing in the MCSO Building, surveying donated items, Lehman found it difficult to sum up her feelings about what happened.

“It takes a while to sink in,’’ she said.



Last Updated on Tuesday, 05 April 2016 15:39

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Londonderry approves island agreement


cabinphoto4 6 16webPress And Journal photo by Eric Wise -- Brian Shutter stands outside his summer cabin on Shelley Island.

With an audience of 400 people at the Londonderry Fire Company watching, the Londonderry Twp. supervisors approved a compliance agreement with York Haven Power Company that could spell the end of about 250 river homes on Shelley and Beshore islands. It was exactly what the crowd sought to prevent.

The agreement, in which York Haven, owners of most of Shelley and Beshore, would end island leases with retreat owners by 2017, was released three days before the township’s March meeting. But after hearing impassioned pleas from homeowners, the supervisors postponed a vote on the agreement, which affects the owners of 178 Susquehanna River retreats on Shelley and 64 on Beshore. 

The township is under pressure from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin strictly enforcing its floodplain development ordinance, which was adopted in March 1980 but rarely enforced on the islands for most of its existence.

“The power company is foisting the compliance agreement on you,” Dwight Yoder, an attorney with Gibbel Kraybill & Hess – a law firm representing the Lake Frederick Homeowners Association, a group of retreat owners – told the supervisors. “They want you to take the heat. That’s what this is about. You shouldn’t have to.”

The supervisors approved the agreement by a 5-0 vote.

Yoder requested a reprieve of 180 days for the association to negotiate with the power company to get the summer homes on Shelley and Beshore islands into compliance with the township’s ordinances. He suggested that the supervisors should be open to working with the property owners rather than trying to get rid of island homes.

Association leaders said on March 30 that York Haven would be open to negotiate with them if the township called off its enforcement efforts for a few months.

Not so, according to Jim Diamond, a township solicitor with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellot. He said the township received word from York Haven last week that it still supported the compliance agreement as written.

York Haven intended to end all recreational licenses with homeowners April 30, Diamond said. In simple terms, no agreement means no one will be able to use the islands after this month. 

Diamond said the message from York Haven is clear: “We are getting out of the business of short-term licensing.” He said it’s simply a way to give homeowners two more years on the river before they must clear the island.

York Haven officials did not respond to calls from the Press And Journal, and they have not appeared at any township meeting involving their island properties.

After Yoder, a handful of island homeowners made their case for allowing them to keep their island homes by getting into compliance with floodplain ordinances. Some homeowners, as well as local business owners, said the island life was not just about a rich family tradition, but also an economic driver for the hinterland that benefits from Lake Frederic.

Pressure from FEMA

Londonderry Twp. negotiated the compliance agreement with York Haven because the power company owns the land containing about half the 487 island lots in the township. Bare’s Tip of Shelley Island has about 19 cabins on the south end of the island  on lots owned by Rick Krehling, who operates Rick’s Marina on the York County side of the river.

Three other river islands are home to summer retreats. Sixty properties on Beech Island are privately leased to cabin owners under a perpetual 99-year agreement, while lots on Hill Island and Popular Island are also privately held.

Steve Letavic, township manager, described the immense burden of the FEMA pressure on Londonderry, which he said will continue to be a cost as the township moves forward with enforcing the floodplain ordinance on the other islands.

Letavic said it would take a 4-mill tax increase to get the island properties into compliance. “Those costs will be passed on to property owners, and we believe the average increase in taxes if that were to occur to Londonderry taxpayers at the local level would be $400 per property owner, and it would not stop there,” he said. He noted the cost would drop by half with the York Haven agreement.

The median-value mainland home in the township is $75,700, which would see a $303 increase in the municipal portion of its property taxes under a 4-mill increase cited by Letavic. 

Derek Krehling, a spokesman for the Lake Frederick Homeowners Association, said he questions many of the numbers bandied by the township. “My initial thoughts are the numbers are greatly exaggerated,” he said. “We will be checking up.”

Londonderry must get into compliance or lose the ability for any of its homeowners to buy government-backed flood insurance. If it fails to meet FEMA standards, it will lose eligibility for all types of disaster relief, including infrastructure repairs following floods and the snow removal after Winter Storm Jonas.

Diamond said the township is powerless when it comes to forcing York Haven to continue licensing the lots. In addition, he said, “The township did not mandate the removal of these structures in its negotiations with York Haven.”

Limited public participation

Supervisor Mel Hershey clarified prior to voting on the motion that the compliance agreement allows the island homeowners to stay on the islands until the end of the summer season in 2017, and it allows them to negotiate another solution with York Haven if it receives a blessing from FEMA and the township.

The supervisors, who limited comment to the beginning of the meeting only, refused to allow any public comments or questions after Diamond and Letavic spoke. Aside from Hershey’s question, no supervisor spoke about the situation. After they all voted to approve the agreement, they quickly adjourned and left the room, despite attempts from members of the audience to express dissatisfaction.

Diamond said the meeting was not intended to be a “question and answer session,” as the supervisors did not respond to questions during the public comments at the beginning, and they would not allow any further public comment after Letavic and Diamond spoke for about 20 minutes. 

Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and an expert on the state’s open meetings law, said public agencies like the board of supervisors are required to “enable an opportunity for meaningful public comment” prior to a vote. Public comment was limited to the beginning of the meeting, and the manager and solicitor felt it necessary to provide a great deal of information after public comment was closed yet prior to a vote. “(This) procedure raises compliance issues because the public wasn’t well informed about the proposal when public comment was accepted, and was denied an opportunity after they became well informed,” she said.

‘Morally wrong,' owners charge

The township, the power company and the homeowners all have a hand in the development of today’s problems with island development that failed to comply with the township’s ordinances, said Yoder, both in his comments to the board and in a letter he sent to Londonderry officials prior to the meeting.

“The situation on the islands did not happen in a vacuum and the blame should not be placed on the owners of the lots,” Yoder said in his letter. “The township should recognize that it has significant responsibility in what has occurred.”

Krehling said the agreement approved by the supervisors is “a quick and easy way for the township to wash their hands of the problem.’’

“The township provided inaccurate information regarding permitting and building to the islanders for over 30 years,’’ Krehling said. “The township failed to do their due diligence for all these years, but they gladly took, and continue to take, our tax dollars.” 

Krehling said it’s “morally wrong” for Londonderry to rush into this agreement and place a huge burden on islanders for getting into compliance. He said while the township points out the cost to its mainland taxpayers for getting the islands into compliance, it fails to note that the islanders’ tax dollars did not buy them accurate information when they called the township about building or other permits over the past decades.

Now that the township has approved the compliance agreement with York Haven, the homeowners’ association must work with York Haven officials to consider continuing the recreational licenses, Krehling said. “Our next step is to regroup and produce an alternate compliance plan,” he said. 

The association, organized just weeks ago, has co-opted on its Web site some of the most famous words uttered by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on June 4, 1940, as he addressed Parliament in regard to the Nazi threat: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."




 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 06 April 2016 15:06

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