Pay it forward.
According to an article in Politics PA, Pennsylvania was once home to over 350,000 volunteer firefighters – now there are fewer than 37,000. And while volunteer ranks across the country have dwindled, call volumes have tripled. Last year both West Chester Fire Chief Steve Pelna and Good Fellowship Interim Director of Operation Justin Robbins announced record-setting years. According to their figures, Good Fellowship Ambulance responded to 7378 calls for service an increase of 700 calls from 2021 and WCFD received 1576 calls.
“That’s the most we’ve seen in our history,” said Chief Pelna.
The combination has left industry and communities desperate for new ways to draw and keep volunteers. One option that has proven popular comes in the way of tax breaks for emergency volunteers.
In 2016, Pennsylvania enacted Act 172 which gave municipalities the option to offer real estate or earned income tax credits to active members of their local volunteer fire and EMS companies. In 2020, the tax relief incentive option was expanded to school districts and counties. While the legislation seems to have taken a few years to gain favor – perhaps, COVID had something to do with that – it has been widely embraced recently, at least locally.
West Goshen began the trend last year when township supervisors approved an ordinance that allowed qualifying volunteers both an earned income tax credit of up to $500 as well as a property tax credit. The tax credits are open to both active duty volunteers and those who were injured in the line of duty. Volunteers must own property in West Goshen to qualify for the real estate credit.
This fall West Chester Borough Council followed suit – voting unanimously to allow a similar property tax provision for volunteers of the West Chester Fire Department and Good Fellowship Ambulance. Under the resolution approved in September, qualifying emergency personnel can claim up to a $1,000 credit against their tax liability.
“This gives us an opportunity to recruit more volunteers and also reward existing volunteers,” said Council Member Brian McGuiness.
The Borough opted against offering volunteers an Earned Income Tax credit deeming the process too difficult to administer.
Now Chester County has sweetened the pot. On Oct. 12, it too enacted an “Active Volunteer Real Estate Tax Rebate Ordinance.” Under the County ordinance, emergency responders can apply for an up to 100 percent rebate on their county property tax.
“It is a responsibility that requires extensive training and time, with a dedication like no other,” said Chester County Commissioners’ Chair Marian Moskowitz of the County’s volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel. “This rebate is one way that we can show how valued these volunteers are.”
Will the incentives have the desired effect? That is yet to be seen. While the credits are a nice gesture they may not go as far as lawmakers would like. A report by the Pottstown Fire Department found that none of their 106 volunteers would benefit if the Borough of Pottstown offered a similar tax break because of the 16 volunteers who lived in the Borough, none owned property. I could not find a similar analysis for our area but it is a fair assumption that the number that qualify will be much lower than the volunteer population at large, leaving leaders continuing to brainstorm new ways to recruit and retain their ranks.
Originally published, Oct. 27, 2023
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