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Townships talk volunteer crisis, costly mandates on local government

| Saturday, April 28, 2018, 5:11 p.m.
Adamsburg volunteer firefighters rescue a dummy being used for a hazardous materials training exercise on a Hempfield farm in June 2015. fake patient. The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors is demanding that the state Legislature address the volunteer crisis affecting local fire and emergency management services (EMS).
Evan Sanders | Trib Total Media
Adamsburg volunteer firefighters rescue a dummy being used for a hazardous materials training exercise on a Hempfield farm in June 2015. fake patient. The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors is demanding that the state Legislature address the volunteer crisis affecting local fire and emergency management services (EMS).

Township officials from across the state passed a resolution Wednesday demanding that Gov. Tom Wolf call a special legislative session to address the volunteer crisis affecting local fire and emergency management services.

The resolution was unanimously adopted during the 96th annual educational conference of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors (PSATS) in Hershey.

PSATS President Shirl Barnhart called attention to the problems township supervisors face in keeping their residents safe and protected at a time when volunteers are dwindling and costs are soaring.

In recent decades, he said, the ranks of fire company volunteers have dropped from 300,000 strong in the 1960s and '70s to below 50,000 today, a sobering statistic.

“If state and local governments don't find a way to recruit and retain these very necessary volunteers, communities will be forced to pay nearly $10 billion a year for fire service, according to figures cited by the state fire commissioner,” said Barnhart, a supervisor and volunteer firefighter in Morgan Township, Greene County.

He requested that Wolf call a special session of the Legislature to act immediately.

“We have been dealing with the crisis involving fire and EMS for too long,” he said. “It's time that our hardworking fire companies and volunteers receive the attention and recognition they deserve from Harrisburg.

“This is not to distract from the current opioid crisis ... it is related. We are talking about the need for first responders. They are the front lines of the opioid battle, and we can't afford to lose any more foot soldiers if we are going to be able to respond to overdose calls.”

The more than 3,000 officials at the conference also discussed citizens' trust in local government.

“In study after study, when people are asked which level of government they trust the most, local government is the winner, not by a little bit, but by a lot,” PSATS Executive Director David Sanko said. “In fact, the closer the level of government to the people, the more confidence they have.”

While bureaucracies, gridlock and partisan bickering in Washington and Harrisburg have left the public jaded, Sanko said, people continue to trust their local officials because they are accessible.

Yet, decisions made in Washington and Harrisburg continue to threaten townships and other local governments, he said.

“Harrisburg and Washington are trying to balance their budgets on our backs by pushing more and more unfunded mandates in our direction and forcing us to increase taxes,” he said.

He cited the burdensome and costly commercial requests that townships are saddled with through the unintended consequences of the state's Right-to-Know Law, as well as the billions of dollars in stormwater mandates from the Environmental Protection Agency as examples of unfunded state and federal mandates placed on townships.

He also pointed to a proposal in Wolf's budget to include a $25-per-person tax on municipalities that rely on state police for primary coverage, a plan that concerns many PSATS members.

“Sure, $25 doesn't seem like a lot of money, especially when you're talking about public safety, but where will it stop? 100, 200, 300 dollars per person?” he asked. “And what will happen when the state decides to charge all communities, even those with local police, for other state police services like the crime lab, the helicopter or the fire marshal?”

State leaders should be providing help — in the way of relief and legislation — to tackle real problems facing communities, Sanko said. Instead, the barrage of federal and state mandates, both proposed and in effect, threaten to push local government onto a fast track to fiscal distress, he said.

“When you start adding them all up,” he said, “a couple billion for stormwater, a couple hundred million for police services, more billions for fire services, it gets kind of scary.”

Sanko urged lawmakers in Harrisburg and Washington to remember that local government is a cornerstone of our nation's democracy and, as such, its survival requires unity rather than acrimony and all levels of government working together as partners instead of adversaries.

“Federal and state officials need to value and appreciate their municipal partners,” he said, “and realize that certain services, like land use planning and community safety, are best provided at the local level. The days of treating local government like a giant ATM machine need to end.”

This article was provided by the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.

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