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Taxes ‘would double’ with paid fire service Council discusses ‘what if ?’ scenario; decision on rec consultant tabled
By: GARY P. KLINGER Review Correspondent, Staff Writer
Just what would be the financial impact to taxpayers if paid fire service was needed in the area?
A discussion on this very topic began shortly after Ephrata Borough Council received its regular reports from both the Pioneer and Lincoln fire companies at its voting session Monday night. What struck council members was the enormous amount of time the volunteers of both companies devoted to serving the community over the course of the year.
Lincoln logged a record 4,178 hours in training during 2012. In addition, it spent 2,899 man hours responding to calls, another 282 hours in fire safety education. And the hours logged by the Pioneer fire company were quite similar.
Both fire companies are not alone in facing considerable challenges both in raising support for their activities as well as securing volunteers willing to dedicate so much time to training and serving in the line of duty. This point was not lost on members of borough council.
"What is sad is that only 20-35 percent of this community donate to the fire company during the fund drive," commented Mayor Ralph Mowen. "We have one of the finest fire companies anywhere in this state."
There is concern statewide that the days of the volunteer fire company may be limited because of the lack of volunteerism. Instead, many municipalities across the state have had no choice but to institute a fire tax in order to fund a paid fire crew.
But at what cost to taxpayers?
Lincoln Fire Chief Randy Gockley was on hand for Monday nights meeting. In his report, Gockley raised this very question.
"What if we would want to maintain a full time fire company," he asked. "A minimum of six people would be needed per shift, times three shifts or 18 people."
Even at a modest salary of $30,000 plus 40 percent in benefits for a cost of $42,000 per fire firefighter, with 18 full-time firefighters, it would cost $756,000 per year. And that is just for one fire company.
Gockley pointed out that several years ago Lincoln had decided to no longer conduct fundraising outside of the annual fund drive. As such, it relies on that fund drive along with state and federal grant funds, as well as rental income from properties owned by the company, to fund not only equipment but training as well.
Council member Anthony Kilkuskie walked fellow council members down this theoretical possibility, trying to drive home the point that the borough receives a considerable bargain in the services provided by the all volunteer crew.
"What would the savings the borough now enjoys translate into for a millage increase," asked Kilkuskie of the theoretical imposition of a fire tax.
Gockley said a one mill increase would generate approximately $668,000 and would translate into roughly an additional $15 tax on an average home valued at $150,000. He added that to support both fire companies, which serve not only Ephrata Borough, but Ephrata Township, Clay Township and mutual aid of other adjoining fire companies throughout the year, would require closer to a two mill increase. By law, municipalities may elect to increase tax by three mills for the purpose of imposing a fire tax.
Should Ephrata Borough ever impose such a tax increase, that would, in effect, nearly double the taxes currently paid within the borough.
Pioneer’s Deputy Chief Ken Weber was also on hand for Monday’s meeting. He pointed out that on the average it takes 15 people to respond to the average call. He indicated that while the company continues to hold its own, he was leery of saying so.
"I don’t want folks to get the impression that we are alright and that we don’t need more volunteers," said Weber. "We are always taking applications for new members."
Kilkuskie drove his point home even further.
"If we had to pay for those services our taxes would double in Ephrata," said Kilkuskie.
And Mayor Mowen added that even with a paid fire staff, that would only place six people in Lincoln and six in Ephrata.
"You need a minimum of 25-30 for 24-hour service," added Mowen, himself a volunteer with the Pioneer Fire Company. "That does not include the cost of equipment and maintenance. That is just salaries alone."
Mowen was later asked about the possible loss of older volunteers at the fire company.
"I’m not aware that we have lost any volunteers," said Mowen. "We are working through a period of change and that can be a time when things are tense. But I know of nobody that has quit the fire company."
Mowen explained that the company was in the midst of a period of change and that sometimes change does not come easily to everyone involved. He reiterated that with regard to the fire police, the Pioneers team would not become a separate organization but remain a division within the Pioneers. He characterized the transition with the fire police as having gone well, but recognized that some of the older fire police volunteers have been responding to fewer calls. Overall, the mayor was upbeat in his assessment of the current situation and confident regarding the company’s future.
In other news, for now, council has decided to table any further decision with regard to the Ephrata Rec Center.
At last Monday night’s meeting, members were presented with a $26,000 proposal by Jennifer Silbert of Silbert Fund Raising, which would take a multi-pronged approach to the ongoing financial challenges faced by the Ephrata Recreation Center.
"We have simply deferred action on this for now," commented borough manager Bob Thompson.
As reported in last week’s Review, action on the matter had been expected at this past Monday night’s borough council meeting, but upon further consideration of the matter, it was decided that a bit more time was needed before a good decision could be reached.
"One concern we had was obtaining proper buy-in from all parties," explained Thompson. "We wanted this to be something embraced by the rec center board and staff and not to be perceived as something being forced on them. We’d prefer to make this more of a collaboration."
Thompson explained that while Silbert had toured the rec center and met with several of their leaders, it was decided that the rec board should be given the opportunity to review the same presentation and proposal she gave to borough council.
The goal now is to consider whether or not to accept the Silbert proposal at the April voting session of borough council.
For additional information on Ephrata Borough, visit ephrataboro.org. For additional information on the Lincoln Fire Company, visit lincolnfirecompany.com or for the Pioneer Fire Company, visit ephratafire.org. Gary P. Klinger welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. More BOROUGH, page A6