Municipalities worry about higher fire tax

Pullquote

“We would be happy to support a capital fund for the new fire company, but the concept of getting our contribution four times what it is just boggles the mind.”

Wendell Fenton

Pennsbury supervisor

By Fran Maye

fmaye@21st-centurymedia.com

Municipalities served by Longwood Fire Co. say instituting a dedicated fire tax would place an undue financial burden on taxpayers. But many of them also agree funding for the fire company must be increased.

Longwood Fire Chief A.J. McCarthy has put municipal officials on notice that unless they increase funding to the fire company dramatically within the next five years, fire service to those municipalities may be cut off.

But municipal officials say they are already operating on a tight budget, and allocating more funds to Longwood Fire Co. will put a severe hit on taxpayers.

“We are working with them, and trying to work on the funding, but there is only so much money in the kitty,” said Jane Laslo, East Marlborough township manager. “We are extremely appreciative of the work they do, but I don’t know why their costs have skyrocketed so much.”

McCarthy said costs have not skyrocketed; it’s simply a matter of the fire company absorbing the shortfall in funding. It cost the fire company more than $385,000 to service East Marlborough than what they contributed in 2011, which was $62,000. McCarthy said the fire company cannot continue to operate the business at such a large deficit in funding.

Pennsbury gave $80,000 in 2011, but it cost $348,000 to service the municipality. Supervisor Wendell Fenton said allocating hundreds of thousands of new dollars for the fire company would be a challenge.

“Their number is ridiculous,” he said. “They have talked to us and we have done what we think is reasonable. We would be happy to support a capital fund for the new fire company, but the concept of getting our contribution four times what it is just boggles the mind.”

Bruce Yelton, who for years was a member of the Kennett Township Planning Commission that examined the possibility of enacting a dedicated fire tax, said Longwood’s request is probably justified, especially with the fire company’s advanced life support service.

“Pennsbury and Kennett Square are not stepping up to the plate,” he said. “Pennsbury is probably the second-most richest township in the county. They just don’t want to up the taxes.”

The five-year deadline is especially worrysome to Newlin Township, which has an annual budget of just under $400,000. There are only 1,285 residents in Newlin Township, and 60 percent of the township is under conservation easement.

Under McCarthy’s plan, Newlin’s fair share is $22,908 per year. For years, they have given nothing. But this year they have allocated $2,400 for fire and EMS service.

“We are making a good-faith effort to increase funding,” said Janine Baird, Newlin supervisor. “We realize they are in need of money. We have doubled the money we budget for fire and EMS, but we have demands for roads and demands for other things. We have residents who have farms who don’t have a big income. How can we ask them to double their real estate taxes?”

Baird said fire company officials should share the financial burden.

“Fire companies used to have fund raisers for breakfast, and stood at intersections with boots,” she said. “They have gotten away from that.”

Kennett Square has its own fire company, but relies on Longwood for EMS service. They are being asked to contribute $178,445 annually. They give just $7,500 per year.

“If there is a higher cost share for us, this must be proven,” said Brant Kucera, borough manager. “This is a gigantic increase they are asking for and it raises a lot of questions. The only way to pay for this is a tax increase, and we would need to levy a millage on our residents.”

Councilor Leon Spencer said he understands the need fire companies have to be adequately funded.

“We recognize the value they provide us as a second responder,” Spencer said. “At the same time, this (funding request) is major and would create a budgetary concern. This almost begs state legislative input. In the end, it comes down to fiscal responsibility.”

Only Kennett Township is close to the funding number Longwood Fire Co. officials are asking.

“I think that none of the other townships are nearly in the good financial shape that Kennett Township is in,” said John Haedrich, a member of Kennett Township planning commission. “This situation illustrates the fact the fire company is facing some serious financial needs to keep these kinds of services and we should embrace the fact we have to money to keep it going.”

All municipal officials contacted for this story gave high praise for the work Longwood Fire Co. does on a regular basis.

“The compliments are nice, but now it’s time to put action next to those compliments,” McCarthy said.