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Bethel Park Volunteer Fire Company pushes fire tax

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The Bethel Park Volunteer Fire Company on Thursday will try to win voters' support for a proposed tax increase that would bolster the department's finances as donations decline.

“Only about 35 percent of the residents of Bethel Park have ever donated, and with the cost of running an organization of our size, we can't live on that,” said Greg Pohodich, vice president of the 83-member volunteer fire company.

“Most people out in the community don't realize we've lived this long on donations alone; they think that some part of their taxes go toward the company. ... We've never, ever gone to the municipality for any type of funding.”

In a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. in the firehouse on Brightwood Road, members will talk about the need for voters to approve a referendum that will appear on the May 21 primary ballot.

The referendum question is whether Bethel Park's home rule charter should be amended to include a 0.34-mill tax increase, or $34 a year for each $100,000 of a property's assessed value. The proceeds would be earmarked for fire department operations and financing of an $8.2 million replacement firehouse, said Building Committee Chairman Edward Schmidt.

A referendum, unlike an ordinance council might pass, “dedicates the fire tax directly to the fire company,” Schmidt said. “It wouldn't allow future elected officials to raid the account.”

Schmidt said the proposed tax increase would raise about $820,000 a year. The fire company has about a $300,000 operating budget funded by donations and grants. No Bethel Park taxes go toward the fire company, and it does not charge fees for responding to any calls, he said.

Donations have declined during the past few years and would not be sufficient or reliable enough to secure loans for a new fire station, Schmidt said.

Councilman Don Harrison opposed putting a tax increase on the ballot because he would prefer to sell bonds for the municipality to finance a fire station. But Schmidt said the department prefers the security of a dedicated funding stream to lobbying council for money.

“We'd be playing political games with politicians, and they're very good at it,” he said.

Most of the tax money would repay bonds the department would float for the fire station. The firehouse on Brightwood — one of three facilities, with others on Clifton Road and Milford Drive — has cracked walls, bad plumbing, asbestos and a floor that has shifted over time. It was expanded in the early 1990s, when the roof was raised to accommodate taller fire equipment, Schmidt said.

Any surplus tax money would be set aside for future capital improvements or equipment purchases.

A study several years ago concluded that replacing the Brightwood station would be more cost-effective than updating it. An architect from Syracuse, N.Y., who specializes in fire facilities designed a station that he estimated could be built for about $6.2 million. About $2 million more would be needed to demolish the old station, prepare the site and pay for designs, management and insurance.

Schmidt said he doesn't know of no any other communities in the state that have amended a home rule charter to set up a dedicated fire company tax. He thinks other departments are watching Bethel as a possible model.

The town hall meeting will include a presentation and question-answer session; video of the last meeting in March is available on Bethel Park's cable access channel or online at http://www.youtube.com/user/tonerwoods.

Firefighters will hand out brochures at the meeting and intend to go door-to-door before the primary.

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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