N. Huntingdon first to offer tax breaks to volunteer firefighters, EMS workers
Greensburg fire Chief Tom Bell believes offering the city's volunteer firefighters a tax credit for their work could help the department recruit new members and retain others.
“We're always having to recruit members. If we get someone who wants to be a member and get a tax break, they might find a love for (firefighting),” Bell said.
Active volunteer firefighters, as well as those involved with emergency medical services such as an ambulance company, can get a 20 percent credit on their municipal real estate taxes and a rebate on earned income taxes under Act 172, a state law that took effect in January 2017.
Greensburg hasn't yet taken action to provide those tax credits.
“I am sure it is something we will be addressing,” said Sue Trout, city administrator.North Huntingdon on Wednesday became the first municipality in Westmoreland County to adopt an ordinance providing the tax credits to its active volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel. Of the 19 other municipalities in the state that have adopted such ordinances, three are in Allegheny County — Churchill, Robinson and Richland Township, according to the Office of the State Fire Commissioner.
Under North Huntingdon's Volunteer Service Credit Program, active volunteers with at least one year of service who meet the township's criteria would get a 20 percent tax credit on local real estate taxes on their property, plus a $250 refund on earned income tax. The state law gives municipalities the option of offering either tax credit, or both.
North Huntingdon Commissioner Anthony Martino sees the tax breaks as helping to recruit members.
“It's a great incentive for them” to join, said Martino, who also serves as the president of the Circleville Volunteer Fire Department.
Municipalities can set the criteria for what they consider an active volunteer. In North Huntingdon, firefighters must respond to 10 percent of a department's emergency calls and participate in 20 hours of annual training, plus assist with 35 percent of its fundraisers. EMS volunteers are eligible if they provide 120 hours of service, including staffing hours, meetings and training.
Township officials were not certain how many firefighters or EMS volunteers might be eligible for the tax breaks, or how much it might cost.
North Huntingdon EMS/Rescue has some volunteers who might qualify, but it probably will be more beneficial to the fire companies, said Shane Spielvogle, executive director of the service.
“Anytime you can get that tax relief for community service is a good trade,” Spielvogle said.
Craig Cochenour, chief of the Circleville fire department in North Huntingdon, agrees that the incentive could work for volunteers since “it's something we never had before.”
Offering a credit on Hempfield's real estate taxes might not be much of an incentive, since the township levies only a 3-mill tax, said Greg Saunders, Bovard fire chief.
Saunders, a longtime firefighter, said the Bovard company has been able to attract a steady stream of young firefighters through other means.
“We don't hire them; we breed them,” Saunders joked, noting that many newcomers have family ties to the department.
Latrobe fire Chief John Brasile said he's had no discussions with city officials about the tax incentive. The city's five fire companies have about 85 active volunteers.
“The tax breaks would be a No. 1 item,” Brasile said. Even better for recruitment are grants that provide stipends to active firefighters who respond to a certain percentage of calls each year, Brasile said.
Wayne Jones, Latrobe city manager, could not be reached for comment.
Penn Township is “very open to the idea” of offering tax credits to draw firefighters to its five volunteer departments, said Alex Graziani, township secretary-manager.
“We're trying to find the best way to reward the volunteers so they stay active and do the training. We want to make sure it is the most effective way to help the fire departments. We have to find a way so that they're not spending all those hours frying fish and conducting fundraisers,” to make enough money to operate, Graziani said.
Tax credits could cost the township between $5,000 and $15,000 in rebates. There are challenges to setting up the procedures for the reimbursement program, which Graziani described as a “mini-IRS” to handle the rebates.
“Any little bit would help. It's tough getting people to volunteer,” to dedicate so much time to training and fundraising and answering emergency calls — 400 last year for Harrison City's 20 to 25 active firefighters, Chief Gene Good said.
“Most people join when they have some time to help. That little incentive might compensate them for the time they volunteer,” Good said.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or email@example.com.