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Township in Clinton County mulls ‘fire tax’

LAURA JAMESON/Special to the Sun-Gazette Supervisor Chairman Kyle Coleman, second from right, speaks to Woodward Township residents during a special meeting at Dunnstown Fire Hall Tuesday night. Supervisors Wayne Love, second from left, and John Barth, far right, and Fire Committee member Bill Hunter are seated with him.

DUNNSTOWN — The Dunnstown Volunteer Fire Co. in Woodward Township is in financial straits and needs help to sustain itself and replace aging equipment.

Township Supervisors Kyle Coleman, Wayne Love and John Barth believe a long-term solution is a fire tax — an additional millage rate assessed on property.

The problem and the proposed solution were the focus of a public meeting in the Dunnstown Fire Hall recently.

A crowd of residents from Woodward Township and other municipalities attended to debate the issue.

All who attended voiced support for the firefighters, but some don’t like another tax.

The new fire tax could be up to 1 mill — the township currently has a property tax of 2.5 mills — assessed on the value of the township’s 900 to 1,000 properties.

Justin Baker, chief of Dunnstown, offered a brief PowerPoint with information and statistics showing the cost of outfitting a firefighter, the voluminous hours required to raise money, train, maintain equipment and the building, plus be on call at all hours of the day and night.

He said sadly the number of volunteers has significantly dwindled.

He cited statistics in Pennsylvania showing there were 300,000 volunteers in 1970, but there were only 30,000 counted in 2019.

He itemized the individual cost of helmets, coats, gloves, airpacks, boots, radios, masks and more equipment and safety devices to total roughly $16,000 per firefighter, noting that fire companies typically must replace their turnout gear every five years. He estimated the operating cost of the fire hall at up to $5,000 or so monthly.

New fire trucks are a “bare minimum” $600,000, Baker said, plus the cost of equipping them at about $53,000.

Dunnstown has a 25-year-old truck with various mechanical issues and “fundraising will not pay the bill” for a replacement, Baker said.

Dunnstown is at the point where it’s going to have to replace a truck, he said,

The fire company is busy – indeed, volunteers were called out just 75 minutes into the meeting. In 2019, the company responded to 272 calls.

Supervisors said they are not allowed, by law, to unilaterally impose a flat tax or fee. As such, they are looking at the property tax and said one mill would generate $137,620, while a quarter mill would generate $34,000. They seemed to lean toward 1 mill because of the high cost to replace a fire truck.

Fire services only

They assured the audience that any tax they impose would be strictly for fire company operations and equipment needs and could not be used for the township’s part-time police force as their proposed resolution does not state the funding is for “emergency services” but only the fire company operations and apparatus.

The tax revenue would be separated in a bank account so any allocations are closely monitored.

The township already provides a direct allocation of $15,000 annually to DFC, plus pays its annual insurance premiums of $14,000. The board said they rotate Woodward’s Act 13 funds of about $19,000 to $20,000 annually — derived from natural gas wells in the township –among the police force, fire company and for recreation.

Bill Hunter sat with supervisors. He sits on the fire company committee tasked with working with the supervisors to find funding.

Hunter admitted that he initially thought, “here we go … another tax.” But upon investigating the fire company’s situation and how the township’s hands are tied when it comes to how to raise revenue to help. He decided to “strive to be fair to everybody.”

But it was just that issue that some property owners brought to the meeting, arguing that a property tax unfairly burdens property owners — especially those with higher values or assessments — versus a flat fee or tax.

Property owner Ernie Renninger said he wholeheartedly supports firefighters, but he also implored the supervisors to do more homework by gathering information on the number of taxable properties, the total assessed value of all of them, the estimated dollar amounts that different millage rates will generate, and then tie all of that to a five year projection of the fire company’s financial needs.

“Where’s the fairness” in a tax on assessed value, Renninger asked, when everyone gets the same level of service?

Discussion about a flat tax was brought up multiple times, and each time Coleman referenced the Second Class Township Code:

“(4) An annual tax not exceeding three mills to purchase and maintain fire apparatus and a suitable place to house fire apparatus, to make appropriations to fire companies located inside and outside the township, to make appropriations for the training of fire company personnel and for fire training schools or centers and to contract with adjacent municipal corporations or volunteer fire companies therein for fire protection.

“(i) The township may appropriate up to one-half, but not to exceed one mill, of the revenue generated from a tax under this clause for the purpose of paying salaries, benefits or other compensation of fire suppression employes of the township or a fire company serving the township.

“(ii) If an annual tax is proposed to be set at a level higher than three mills, the question shall be submitted to the voters of the township.”

Coleman and his fellow supervisors encourage those in attendance to speak with their state representative to change this law so a flat tax or fee can be utilized.

Love said the supervisors have met with Clinton County commissioners to discuss the challenges facing volunteer fire companies in the county, i.e. a lack of manpower and funding. He said the commissioners are forming a task force to address the issues and he lauded that.

Supervisors can “pay Dunnstown’s bills” and wait for a different solution to funding, such as a change in state law to allow a flat tax or fee, but the fire company “needs help now.”

No money set aside

“They have no money set aside,” Love said at different times during the meeting in answer to questions. He said if supervisors gave Dunnstown a quarter-mill fire tax providing the smallest allocation, “we’d be in the same shape six months or a year from now” based on the company’s dire finances.

Resident Cheryl Myers said she co-owns three properties in the township and opposes a tax on property as the solution.

She suggested the supervisors consider approaching businesses such as First Quality who have helped donate to worthy causes.

“There are good people down there,” she said.

Myers emphasized, like many who attended the meeting, that she is not opposed to helping the fire company, but insisted, “There has to be a better way.”

She urged supervisors to find other funding sources and to lobby for a flat tax or fee on residents.

She also said the township could borrow funds, otherwise “you’re penalizing us (property owners) because we chose to put money into our homes and properties.”

She suggested a handful of property owners in the township will end up generating the bulk of the tax revenue because of their high assessed value.

Resident Terry Shultz said he feels many people are mostly anxious about the possible cost they’d have to pay.

“I’m wondering if we’re all just scared of what we may have to pay,” he said.

His property, assessed at $99,300, would cost him $99.30 per year if the tax were to be set at 1 mill.

“I wouldn’t be happy paying the extra $99 but I think it’s fair,” he said.

Rose Reeder spoke about her niece who lost her home in the Paradise wildfire in California in 2018.

“You value your life, you value your homes so maybe we should not think about what our neighbor is paying but what we value,” she said.

Some people from other municipalities came to the meeting to give their views about struggling fire companies as well as the idea of a fire tax.

Wayne Township resident Brad Rote talked of the struggles of all volunteer fire companies.

“One of the situations we have in the fire companies … life in general has changed,” he said.

“Weekends aren’t for fundraising anymore. Now (volunteers) are working 10 to 12 hours a day.”

‘Necessary evil’

“I know it’s going to be a bite in your pockets but … if you don’t pony up and keep these ladies and gentlemen happy you’re going to have to pay more than the millage rate. It’s a necessary evil,” he said.

Rote, who is employed for Mill Hall Borough, said most fire companies are struggling to fundraise and keep themselves functioning.

He disputed a rumor that Wayne Township Fire Co. receives 25 cents for every ton of waste disposed of at the Wayne Township Landfill.

“That’s a myth,” he said.

Rote applauded the supervisors for taking the step toward a fire tax.

“This is a step in the right direction. This isn’t a tax that’s frivolous,” he said.

Michelle Whitney criticized Clinton County government for not helping fire companies.

She said her research shows that Centre County allocated $280,000 to fire companies while Lycoming gave $1.6 million.

“Get them (commissioners) to open their budget” to allocate funds, she said, suggesting the commissioners need to reprioritize their spending.

She suggested Clinton County allocates no money for fire companies, but Mill Hall fireman Tony Walker said the county does provide money for training firefighters.

Township supervisors said under the township code they have until Feb. 13 to impose the tax if it is to be included in property tax notices that go out this year.

As such, supervisors will hold their regularly scheduled meeting next Tuesday, Jan. 21, in the fire hall along Woodward Avenue and the tax will be on that meeting agenda.

They must follow that with a 10-day public notice.

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