Mayor Thomas Micozzie moves with the purpose of a firefighter.
He might not be going into a burning building or scaling ladders, but he still has the no-nonsense attitude that comes from most of his life spent around first responders.
It’s evident in the summer at the Upper Darby International Festival when the town’s diversity is showcased and he is the biggest cheerleader. But it’s not only at the township’s signature event.
On a cold, gray January afternoon inside his office the fire radio intermittently chirps in the background and Micozzie is touting the future of Upper Darby. Some of the highlights include a 500-car parking garage at the 69th Street Station, the Holiday Inn adjacent to the Drexelbrook Catering and Special Events Center, and Comfort Suites, which will be adjacent to the Upper Darby Township Municipal Building on Garrett Road.
Micozzie was also quick to credit the work of Police Superintendent Michael Chitwood and the Upper Darby Police by pointing out that there was just one murder in Upper Darby last year and the police department’s “solve rate” is above the national average.
The mayor of the largest township in Pennsylvania (and maybe the nation) with more than 80,000 residents, and The Spirit sat down for a chat and here’s how it went:
The Spirit (TS): The current number of 72,000 volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania is far less than the mid-1970s’ high of 300,000. What are your thoughts about the decline of volunteer firefighters?
The Mayor (or Tom Micozzie) (TM): What we’ve seen in the challenges are the requirements to be a firefighter, while good for safety, have increased the hours. The amount of time necessary for two-income families has diminished it.
In Upper Darby, we kind of put ourselves out of business. In the old civil service code, when they first became unionized, in order to be a firefighter you had to have experience in a combination department. The only combination department from here to Mississippi was Upper Darby.
So all of our firefighters joined the paid ranks and continued to volunteer. In the ‘80s with the Fair Labor Standard Act, if you get paid a salary from a municipality, you can no longer volunteer with that municipality and that was the turning point of our volunteer stations.
We had one fully volunteer station in Upper Darby. We are the only town that has an ordinance that established a combination fire department. It spells out if you are a chief in the paid department your qualifications are the same as a chief here. It’s color-blind when you are on the truck. You wouldn’t know a volunteer from a career guy. We’ve been very successful. We are up to 50 paid firefighters and just added six under the Safer Grant.
TS: You joined the fire company at age 16 and worked your way up from a junior member to chief. Is that where your dedication to first responders comes from?
TM: It does stem from that and there is a very strong camaraderie among firefighters. They are family. There are people who come in and leave and there are others who feel the need who want to help people. Once you go though a door with a bunch of guys, there is a bond that you will never replace.
TS: Politics is a bit different. It may be cliché, but there is more (negative behavior practiced in the course of doing business). What was the adjustment like?
TM: I learned my best politics on the floor of a firehouse. I was fortunate in the era I came up – it was a paramilitary organization – where you spoke when you were spoken to and respected your leaders.
We studied at 16 and 17 years-old Roberts Rules, along with how to open a roof. I learned at an early age you can disagree with someone but you have to remain respectful and I’ve always maintained that. I’ve had people here try to bite me and I’ve called them in. You can’t argue with me in public, especially on Facebook, if you can’t express to me why you are upset at the table.
TS: Your father (Nicholas Micozzie) spent 44 years in public office. What lessons from the retired realtor and state legislator from Clifton Heights have you found most valuable?
TM: There are two. Always treat someone as you would want to be treated. When the phone rings, and that person calls you, if you capture that moment, whether you told them the right thing and were able to help them or couldn’t help them, they will never forget you returned the phone call.
TS: Why is it so important to continuously reach out and work with religious and cultural groups in Upper Darby?
TM: They are the community. I don’t forget that my grandfather got on a boat at two years-old in Italy and they are the same. I want to hear their story. Why are they here? Oppression? A better life? Some are horrifying stories. If you are a mayor in this town and you don’t connect with 82 languages you aren’t going to be effective.
TS: How do you feel when (Republican) President Trump calls places from where many Upper Darby residents are from, “shithole countries?”
TM: It drives me nuts. It’s my party. The president is supposed to be the leader of the party and it puts me in a bad spot because I was raised to respect the president. What he said was totally disrespectful. They are your citizens. When they are on this soil, they are your citizens.
The challenges that come with that, fortunately, I’ve done enough they respect me; they know it’s not my views.
TS: Upper Darby is in the shadow of Philadelphia. 69th Street is a unique blend of chain and independent stores. How do you establish a niche?
TM: I’ve done a lot to try to recreate the surroundings around the Tower Theater and the 69th Street Hub. I reengineered the entire License and Inspection Department. If a developer comes in, he gets my telephone number right away and a meeting within a week to establish their goals and visions.
Once that got stabilized, then I started moving west to let people know it’s not just about 69th Street. It needs to be about the entire township. There are little pieces that come together everyday.
We can’t compete with Philadelphia. They are giving full city blocks 10-year tax abatements. I can’t get a (tax abatement) done by the school district. They think they are giving free money away. There needs to be a whole education on the comprehensive plan about the value of that.
Our niche is our diversity, transportation hub and what’s happening on 69th street. Our housing stock has improved. Occupancy rates have improved.
Micozzie’s five favorites: TV Show – Blue Bloods; Movie – The Unknown; Athlete – Pete Rose; Sports Team – Eagles; “Philly” Meal – Steak at DelFriscos.