Bethel Park VFC topic continues to dominate council meetings

Published May 16, 2013 at 8:54 am (Updated May 16, 2013 at 8:54 am)

Bethel Park resident Carl Denson said he remembers watching the Bethel Park Volunteer Fire Company battle a house fire in his neighborhood in 1947.

“At that time they only had one truck,” said Denson. “They had to call Castle Shannon to help them.”

Denson said that over the years he has watched the small company grow and he admires the dedication and professionalism of the volunteer firefighters.

At the May 13 Bethel Park Council meeting, Denson urged residents to vote yes on a primary election referendum that will provide a .34 mill dedicated tax for the fire company.

“I support the fire department 102 percent,” he said.

On Feb. 11, council voted to place the referendum question changing the home rule charter to enact the tax for the purpose of constructing a new fire station and to fund the annual operating costs of the 85-year-old fire company.

On Monday, council passed a resolution supporting the Bethel Park Volunteer Fire Company and praising the company for its dedication and service to the community.

The resolution did not mention the referendum for the dedicated fire tax, and, despite Council President Tim Moury’s urging Councilman Don Harrison to support the resolution as a “gesture of good will.” Harrison, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the referendum, refused to vote in favor of the resolution.

Harrison was the only member of the nine-member council who voted in opposition of the resolution.

The councilman has said that, while he supports the firefighters, he believes that council violated its own home rule charter. The vote took place on Feb. 11 and, according to Harrison, did not, per the home rule charter, become effective until March 13. However, the ordinance was submitted to the Allegheny Bureau of Elections on Feb. 13 to meet the Feb. 19 deadline for referendum questions to be place on the May 21 ballot.

Harrison contends this violated the home rule charter because the ordinance was not yet effective.

“I find it astounding that council has the gall to ask the public to vote for a change in the (home rule charter) on the May 21 ballot when council demonstrated by their action on Feb. 11 that they don’t feel the need to abide by the (home rule charter),” Harrison said.

Members of council and of the fire company have said the change to the home rule charter, by a referendum supported by voters, is the only way to ensure that the fire service will have a dedicated funding source that can not be changed except by another referendum.

Councilman Jim McLean called the referendum “necessary, equitable, fair and limited, transparent and a decision of the people.”

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

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.

Firefighters, who have held two public meetings on the referendum, continue to lobby voters. Company members have placed signs throughout the community urging voters to vote yes.

Fire Company President Jeff Pritchard said voters will receive cards in the mail requesting their vote, and firefighters plan to be at the polling places on Tuesday to answer questions.

In addition, the fire company will be holding its annual open house from noon-4 p.m. May 19 at the Brightwood Road station. The event will include tours, demonstrations, fire prevention information, refreshments and activities for children.

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