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Mt. Pleasant considers firehouse fee

| Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

If Mt. Pleasant Township supervisors approve an annual fee to help fund fire stations, the township will join 11 other Westmoreland County municipalities with similar taxes.

The fees, many called “fire equipment and firehouse” taxes, benefit volunteer fire departments that are struggling to raise revenue for equipment. In the 11 municipalities with such levies, the fee ranges from about half a mill up to 2 mills.

On Tuesday, the Mt. Pleasant Township Emergency Services Association will publicly present its proposal to charge an annual fee of $30 per household to fund fire stations.

Their message: Fire service is dangerous and “safety is not free.”

Mt. Pleasant firefighters said interest in volunteer fire department fundraisers has lagged in the poor economy, while costs for fire engines and other equipment have exploded.

The township has five volunteer fire departments: Calumet, Hecla, Kecksburg, Norvelt and Trauger.

Township supervisors would have to vote on the levy, and the firefighters association wants that vote to happen this year.

Other municipalities that impose a hydrant tax, ambulance tax or fire equipment tax are Allegheny Township, Avonmore, Murrysville, New Stanton, North Huntingdon, Salem, Sewickley, South Greensburg, Unity, Upper Burrell and Washington Township.

Municipalities are allowed to enact fire taxes, though not every municipality chooses to, said Theresa Elliott, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

“It is up to each municipality on how to fund emergency services,” Elliott said in an email. “Some have the dedicated tax, some just use general funds and there are places where the local VFC or ambulance receives no financial support.”

North Huntingdon township enacted a fire tax in 1987. Township manager John Shepherd said he doesn't know the impetus for the decades-old tax, but “it has to certainly be related to the need for them to have funds to operate.”

Seven fire departments operate in the township, each earning an equal share from the tax, estimated at about $63,000 per station, Shepherd said.

In Salem township, Supervisor Ron Martz is pleased with the fire tax, which is expected to bring in about $70,000 for 2012. That sum will be split between two fire stations and will fund maintenance to fire hydrants, he said.

The tax has been in effect four or five years, and in general “it was accepted” by residents.

“Your fire departments are having trouble being funded and even finding manpower,” Martz said. “So (the tax) was part of the solution to fix it.”

The extra money allows firefighters more time to devote to the fire station and in training, rather than on fundraising, Martz said.

In Sewickley township, six agencies evenly split an “emergency” tax — four fire companies, an ambulance service and emergency management. The tax, in effect since 2008, typically brings in between $85,000 and $90,000 a year, said Susan Leukhardt, township secretary/treasurer.

“I believe that (the recipients) are very pleased with it,” she said. “Once that money is disbursed at the beginning of the year ... they will use that to pay off truck payments, maintenance and repairs on their equipment. They do use it and, I think they're very happy with it.”

Rossilynne Skena is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6646 or rskena@tribweb.com.

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