Bethel Park residents vote yes for home-rule charter change

Published May 21, 2013 at 10:19 pm (Updated May 21, 2013 at 11:56 pm)

As soon as the votes were tallied, Ed Schmidt, recording secretary of the Bethel Park Volunteer Fire Company, made a phone call.

“I called the architect,” said Schmidt, also the chairman of the fire company’s building committee. “He was impressed (with the overwhelming number of yes votes).”

Tuesday night, firefighters celebrated inside the main fire station on Brightwood Road while the electronic message board outside flashed a thank you message to residents who voted in favor of a referendum that will amend the municipality’s home rule charter and establish a dedicated .34 mill tax to fund the fire company.

A tote board that broke the votes down by polling place showed a total of 4,473 yes votes and 1,604 no votes.

“The people have spoken,” said Schmidt. “It was a lot of work, grief and stress, but it was worth it.”

The planned tax will mean residents will 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.

Fire 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 all-volunteer company, which for 86 years has subsisted solely on fundraising and grants, has reached a point were it can no longer exist without a dedicated funding source, members have said. The company, unlike neighboring volunteer fire companies, has never received any municipal funding.

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 original station on Brightwood Road 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.

The company also maintains smaller fire stations on Milford Drive and Clifton Road.

Now that the referendum has passed, the fire company can move ahead with 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.

The tax will be used to fund a new $8.2 million fire station the company and to provide a dedicated $300,000 for the company’s operating costs.

Schmidt said the next item on the fire company’s agenda is to empty the old station and find places to store their trucks during the construction.

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