Vote expected Feb. 11 on home rule charter change

Published Feb 4, 2013 at 9:15 am (Updated Feb 8, 2013 at 2:55 pm)

The members of the Bethel Park Volunteer Fire Company are asking residents to support their efforts to secure dedicated funding for their department.

“This is the best way for both parties,” fire company President Jeff Pritchard said of municipal officials plans to ask voters to approve a change to the home rule charter to allow a tax which would provide dedicated funding for the department.

With rising operating costs, a drop in donations, and now faced with replacing an antiquated main fire station, firefighters have turned to municipal officials to keep the company in existence.

Bethel Park council is expected to vote on placing the referendum on the ballot at a meeting scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Bethel Park Municipal Building.

“We thought it would be best to have people vote on it,” said council President Tim Moury.

The proposed change to the municipal home rule charter would provide for a .34 mill tax, which would be dedicated to the fire company.

Moury said that the dedicated tax would mean residents would pay $34 for every $100,000 in property value. The tax would be used to fund a new $8.2 million fire station the company is proposing to build to replace the main station on Brightwood Road. Plans call for construction to begin late winter of 2014.

Firefighters said the building, which was built in 1954 when the company responded to only 96 calls a year, is in bad shape and inadequate for a company that has responded to nearly 400 calls last year.

Moury said the tax, which the municipality will collect and administer, will pay for the new fire station and provide $300,000 in annual operating costs for the company. In addition, the fire company would give the municipality the deeds not only to the new station, but also the smaller stations on Clifton Road and Milford Drive. The municipality would lease the buildings back to the fire company for $1 a year.

“We’re talking about (being responsible) for the buildings and anything to do with the buildings,” Moury said.

Firefighters would still be responsible for funding items such as equipment and training.

Although the majority of council agreed with Moury, Councilman Don Harrison called his fellow council members cowards for not wanting to just implement a new tax without voter approval.

Harrison said he supports the fire company and would like to see more residents donate to support the department. Harrison has also suggested funding the fire department by an ordinance or as a line item in the annual budget.

“I absolutely oppose an ordinance to change the home rule charter,” he said.

Harrison pointed out that less than 50 percent of the households in the community contribute to the fire company, and added that many of his constituents, who are contributors, have told him they will not vote for a change in the home rule charter.

“There is going to be a petition against this and it is started already,” said Harrison.

Firefighters said nothing except a change to the home rule charter mandating the dedicated funding will allow them to continue as a volunteer organization.

“We’ve hear the horror stories of councils stopping or reducing the funding (for fire departments),” said Ed Schmidt, fire company recording secretary and chairman of the new building committee. “We would be at the mercy of the politicians if (funding) goes as a line item. Any future council could reduce or eliminate funding (if not in the charter). Once you reduce fund drives and fundraising (to support the fire service) people aren’t prepared to turn back to it.”

Fire officials said that the tax on the individual homeowner would be less than the donations they get from most of those households which do contribute.

The volunteers are planning to hold public informational meetings between now and the May primary and are anxious to give the residents information about the fire company operations, said fire company Treasurer Bill Wiles.

Schmidt said the fire company, which is the largest volunteer company in Allegheny County, is “a large business,” and needs to have a dedicated funding source in order to operate.

According to fire company officials, only two percent of the businesses in the municipality contribute to the fire company. In addition, older residents, who were more inclined to understand that the volunteer force depended upon their donations, are being replaced by residents who do not understand that the municipality does not fund the fire service

For the past 87 years, the firefighting volunteers have depended on donations and grants as well as fund raisers, such as bingo and carnivals, to fund everything from day-to-day operating costs to new equipment, and fund raising activities cut into time that could be spent training.

“For 87 years, we were the best (free public service) this community had,” said Schmidt.

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