Bethel mulls home rule charter change to aid fire company

Published Jan 21, 2013 at 11:45 am (Updated Jan 21, 2013 at 11:45 am)

Like other volunteer fire departments, members of the Bethel Park Volunteer Fire Company spend much of their time raising funds to keep the company in operation.

“It’s become a whole lot more difficult with the economy,’ said Ed Schmidt, company recording secretary and chairman of the new building committee.

“Take bingo for example,” he said. “We used to get 90 to 100 people on a Saturday night. Now we get less than 20.”

Along with funding the day-to-day operating costs of the company, members are now faced with having to raise money to replace the antiquated main fire station on Brightwood Road.

Schmidt said the company has visited local, state and federal officials seeking funding sources, but without any results.

“They say ‘We need you, we love you and we can’t pay for you,’ ” said Schmidt. “We’ve exhausted every grant.”

Firefighters appealed to municipal officials, who are now considering changing the home rule charter to establish a dedicated annual tax of approximately .34 mills for the fire company.

Council members are expected to discuss the change at a committee meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, and may vote on the measure at the February voting meeting.

The dedicated tax would take pressure off the fire company, leaving more time for training. In addition, the change in the commitment of time would attract more new members, Schmidt said. Fire company members would still fund raise, but would not be pressured to always be scrambling to pay bills, he said.

Councilman Don Harrison is opposing the change in the home rule charter. He said the problem is businesses and households who fail to make annual contributions to the “dedicated and efficient volunteer fire company,” while still expecting firefighting services.

Harrison said that changing the home rule charter is not the way to fund the fire service.

“Changing the home rule charter is like pouring it in concrete,” he said.

Harrison is suggesting instead that municipal officials enact an ordinance or include funding to the fire company as a line item in the annual budget. Both of those suggestions would mean that the fire company would get funding at council’s discretion, but it would not be a permanent funding source.

Schmidt and other council members argue that changing the home rule charter is the best way to assure that the fire company would always have a steady funding source. Anything less than putting it in the home rule charter would mean that the fire company would be left wondering from year to year if it must do more fundraising or ask the residents for more donations.

Enacting the tax by a change in the home rule charter will mean that it will have to be up to a vote by the residents.

“It’s a process,” said Councilman Jim McLean. “Voters will get to vote on it on an election day. “(Residents and municipal officials) need to keep an open mind,” he said. “Listen to what the folks from the fire company themselves have to say.”

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