BP residents receptive to VFC tax

Published Apr 23, 2013 at 8:46 am (Updated Apr 23, 2013 at 8:46 am)

According to Bethel Park Fire Chief Dave Gerber, residents have been very receptive to the proposal of a dedicated tax to support the volunteer fire company.

“No one has given us a hard time,” said Gerber. “I hope it’s the same on the 21st.”

Gerber was one of several firefighters who sat down to talk to residents one-on-one during a recent public meeting held at the fire station on Brightwood Road.

The second public meeting on the subject attracted only a half dozen residents, less than a similar meeting held last month, so fire fighters dispensed with the formal presentation. Fire company officers sat at tables with the residents, presenting their proposal, showing drawings of a proposed new fire station and answering questions.

The proposed .34 mill real estate tax, which would finance the building of a new state-of-the-art $8.2 million fire station as well as provide $300,000 for the annual operation of the fire company, is being placed as a referendum on the May 21 primary election ballot

The all volunteer company was founded in 1927 after a fire on South Park Road took the life of a young mother, explained Jeff Pritchard, president of the fire company.

The fledgling company had only an old Model T Ford and minimal equipment, Pritchard said, adding “but the residents were generous.”

As the company has grown, donations from residents have fallen off, and currently only about 35 percent of the households and 10 percent of the businesses in the community contribute to the firefighters’ fund drives.

Unable to afford annual operating costs and unable to fund a badly needed new fire station, members of the fire company, working with municipal officials, decided that a dedicated tax would be the way to solve the fire company’s financial problems.

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.

The Bethel Park company, which maintains smaller fire stations on Milford Drive and Cliffton Road, is the largest volunteer company in the county. The company, unlike neighboring volunteer fire companies, has never received any municipal funding, fire fighters said.

Company members said that if the municipality was to go to a paid fire service, it would cost Bethel Park residents approximately $4.1 million annually. In addition, the highly efficient fire company has achieved an insurance industry rating that saves the residents 10 percent on their annual homeowner’s insurance premiums.

The original station was built in 1954 when the company responded to only 96 calls a year. About 20 years ago, the engine bays were rebuilt, but the building is in bad shape and inadequate for a company that responded to nearly 400 calls last year.

“It was good for its time,” Pritchard said.

If the referendum passes, the fire company plans to begin construction on a new fire station, at the current site, in late winter 2014.

Dennis Ross, an architect with Pancheco Ross Architects PC, said the new building can be expected to serve the fire company for 50 to 75 years.

Members of the fire company answer not only fire calls, but also rescue and any situations involving police and emergency medical services, Gerber said.

Company members also perform community services such as fire safety training at local schools.

“We never know when the alarm goes off what we are going into,” said Gerber. “We’re all your neighbors, normal every day people. Nobody’s getting a pay check.”

The fire company will be holding an open house at the Brightwood station on May 18.

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