Bethel Park OKs dedicated fire tax on ballot

Published Feb 12, 2013 at 1:43 pm (Updated Feb 12, 2013 at 1:43 pm)

Bethel Park council voted 6-1 to place a referendum on the May 21 primary ballot to allow a change to the home rule charter which would establish a dedicated .34 mill tax to fund the fire company.

Now, members of the Bethel Park Volunteer Fire Company are ready to take their cause to the public.

Fire company officials are planning to hold a public meeting on March 7 at the fire station on Brightwood Road to educate the residents about the fire company and the services it provides. The all-volunteer company, which for 86 years has subsisted solely on fundraising and grants, has reached a point were it can no long exist without a dedicated funding source, members said.

“You folks do have a professional fire department, one that is staffed by volunteers,” Fire Chief Dave Gerber said during his monthly report to council Feb. 11.

Councilman Don Harrison voted against the motion. Council members Paul Dixon and John Pape were absent.

Although Harrison has praised the fire company as being an “effective, efficient volunteer organization that deserves community support,” he voted against the motion. The councilman has said there are other ways, such as a bond issue to provide funding for the fire service.

Harrison also said that council has not considered what will happen if the voter referendum fails.

The proposed tax would mean residents would pay $34 for every $100,000 in property value for the tax. The average house value in Bethel Park is estimated to be $142,000, according to Allegheny County assessments.

According to firefighters, if the municipality was forced to go to a paid fire service it would cost the municipality approximately $4.1 million annually.

In addition, the average savings on residents homeowner’s insurance because of the insurance industry rating the fire company has achieved is more than the company is asking in the referendum, fire company members said.

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.

Council President Tim Moury has said that municipality would collect and administer the tax, which would 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.

Fire company members would still be required to complete minimal fundraising and seek grants for items such as training and equipment, but would not have to scramble to find funding to pay bills.

Before the vote, resident Ron Arnoni addressed council.

“(The referendum) is a question I think needs to be on the ballot,” he said. “Allow the public to decide how our tax dollars are spent. We have a lot of good in this community and I think the fire company is an asset that needs our support.”

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