Wilkins considering tax for fire companies
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Wilkins commissioners Monday discussed several suggestions, including a possible tax increase, to help fund the township's volunteer fire departments.
When the commissioners and fire officials from all three fire companies met to discuss funding options during a public safety meeting March 31, among the issues raised was how the volunteer departments pay the bulk of their expenses through fundraising efforts, donations and limited contributions from the township -- and the fact that the model is unsustainable.
The township grants each department an allocation of $32,000 a year for expenses such as training, minor tools and equipment. It pays vehicle insurance and workers' compensation premiums for the companies; in 2011, the amount for those two items will be about $41,931. It is bound by resolution to contribute money for larger equipment and vehicles to each department on a rotating basis every five years. The township is scheduled to pay Wilkins Volunteer Fire Department No. 4 about $166,568 next year.
Even with the contributions, said Bill McElheny, deputy fire marshal for No. 4, the departments have been getting by for years on bare-bones budgets. During a heated exchange Monday with Commissioner Michael Szoko, he said he could not give an exact amount the fire companies need each year.
"We've been doing it for around $180,000 per year. You guys are getting a good deal," he said, adding that expenses for fire equipment increase by about 10 to 15 percent annually.
Manager Rebecca Bradley said the township could legally raise the property tax rate by up to 3 mills to cover fire expenses, and that increasing the tax rate by 1 mill could raise $300,000 to $350,000 for the departments in 2012. Board President Sylvia Martinelli pointed out that less than 30 percent of residents donate toward the department, and that a tax would spread the costs more evenly.
Another suggestion to raise funds was to change the laws governing fire lane enforcement so that all firefighters would be allowed to write tickets to violators, and the proceeds from the tickets would go directly to the departments. The board approved a motion for solicitor John Rushford to research whether the township may change the ordinance, which allows only fire marshals and deputy fire marshals to write tickets and dedicates ticket revenue to the township's general fund.
Mr. Rushford also was asked to check into whether the township could change the resolution that determines how the fire companies are funded to allow money to go toward upgrading equipment in addition to buying it new. Rather than putting funds toward a new truck with the township's contribution, officials from Volunteer Fire Company No. 4 said, they could have an old truck upgraded with a new engine and equipment at a cost of $250,000, leaving the township with an obligation closer to $150,000 than the $166,568 it had anticipated paying.
The commissioners voted to approve a payment to Volunteer Fire Company No. 4 next year but did not specify an amount in case the resolution is changed. It also voted to ask Mr. Rushford to research the possibility of an ordinance that would charge insurance firms for fire department costs related to traffic accidents.
Mr. Szoko presented an idea to consolidate two of the departments, use one of the empty sites to house emergency medical services, increase the annual contributions to the two remaining departments and give funds for equipment every two to three years instead of five to rein in costs. Department members in the audience cried out that the buildings weren't owned by the township, and Mrs. Martinelli chided Mr. Szoko for not attending last month's public safety meeting.
Commissioner Sharyn Fialla expressed reservations about the fire tax, particularly in a time when the township might have to raise tax millage to make up for deficits projected through 2013.
"Although we'd like to give everybody everything they ask for and keep services at the same level, if we raise taxes, at what point does the tax increase become a disincentive for business investment?" she asked.
Mike King, deputy fire chief of Wilkins Volunteer Fire Company No. 1, said it came down to whether residents believe in an investment toward their own safety.
"If people want quality of life, they have to be willing to pay for it," he said. "If you expect fire or police to show up at your door, someone has to pay for it."
First Published April 14, 2011 5:44 am