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Bethel Park referendum seeks property tax increase to fund fire station construction

| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Bethel Park taxpayers will get to decide if the town should permanently dedicate part of its tax revenue to the volunteer fire department.

Council on Monday voted 6-1 to put a referendum on the May ballot that would amend the town's home-rule charter to provide 0.34 mills of property tax to the company. Department officers said they need the money to replace the existing fire station on Brightwood Road.

“Unfortunately, we aren't going to be able to build this building by ourselves,” fire Chief Dave Gerber told council. Building a station would cost $8.6 million, firefighters said.

The department also operates from two other buildings, on Clifton Road and Milford Drive.

Bethel Park assistant manager Judy Miller said the May ballot question would be the first referendum to reform the town's home-rule charter since 1998, when voters were asked to formalize the wording of future ballot questions.

Municipal staff and council would have to decide whether the 0.34 mills would need to be added to existing property tax millage or accommodated elsewhere in budgeting, she said

That would not be considered until the 2014 budget process begins in July and would not be finalized until budget voting begins in November. Bethel Park's property tax is 2.43 mills, pending an expected reduction caused by property tax reassessments.

Gerber and Jeff Pritchard, fire company president, said the Brightwood station, built in 1959, has cracking walls, a “floating floor” that rises and falls with the weather, and plumbing problems.

A feasibility study the fire company commissioned concluded that building a station is the best option, rather than renovating.

Council President Tim Moury said allocating tax revenue to the company would provide it with security.

Gerber said the change would generate about $700,000 for the department, while municipal Finance Director Joseph Villela estimated the revenue would be closer to $780,000. That would cost a taxpayer $34 annually on a home assessed at $100,000.

Moury and council member Jim McLean said a lot is at stake.

“If we don't go in this direction, we are going to lose our volunteer fire department,” McLean said. He added that a paid department would cost the taxpayers a lot more.

Fire department members likely will be able to campaign in favor of the referendum, but municipal officials would not, said Mayor Clifford Morton.

“The fire department will definitely be out there pushing for it,” Morton said. “If anybody talks to us, we'll certainly give them our input, but we're not going to be campaigning.”

Pritchard said while the number of calls to the fire department has increased over the years, donations have decreased by about 14 percent. About $300,000 a year of the department's $500,000 annual budget comes from donations, said department Vice President Gregory Pohodich.

Gerber said competition from local casinos made bingo fundraisers unprofitable, and they have been cancelled.

If the referendum is approved, Pritchard said the company is ready to accept bids for the work.

“Hopefully we can start construction on this early next year,” Pritchard said.

Councilman Don Harrison voted against a referendum, saying bonds should be sold to fund a station as has been done for other projects, such as the Bethel Park Community Center. Council members John Pape and Paul Dixon were absent from the meeting.

Eric Eisert is a freelance writer. Staff writer Matthew Santoni contributed to this story. He can be reached at 412-320-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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