IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Tax Credits Considered to Boost Firefighter Recruitment

Columbia likely won't be the last department to see across-the-board support for its volunteers. Dozens of municipalities and school districts in the county are considering their own tax credit programs.

(TNS) — Columbia Borough Fire Department Chief Scott Ryno takes pride in the level of support his volunteers receive from the community.

The borough, its school board and Lancaster County government each offer the department's volunteers a kickback on their taxes. It's a move, Ryno said, that could help stabilize the department's force during a time of dwindling volunteerism across the state.

"In the world of volunteer recruitment and retention, there's no magic bullet, so you're just trying to take all of these different pieces and put them together to lay in front of somebody and say, 'Here's all the things you can get by helping your community and volunteering,' " Ryno said.

Columbia likely won't be the last department to see across-the-board support for its volunteers. Dozens of municipalities and school districts in the county are considering their own tax credit programs. The county adopted its rebate program in October.

In the past year alone, West Earl and East Cocalico townships as well as Strasburg Borough have started to consider their own incentives.

Two pieces of state legislation, Act 172 of 2016 and Act 91 of 2020, allow the tax rebates as a means to address a mounting volunteer crisis among local emergency services. Any municipality, county or school district can offer varying levels of financial relief to volunteer firefighters and ambulance personnel, depending on the amount of hours they log for the year. Most programs offer about $200 back in property taxes or earned income taxes.

The goal is to bring more people through the doors while encouraging existing volunteers to step up even more. The more hours a volunteer puts in, the higher their annual credit.

Experts agree tax credits likely won't be a catch-all solution to the statewide decline in volunteerism, but it's a positive step forward as the state has lost roughly 300,000 volunteers in the last 40 years.

"With the downturn in volunteerism and a loss of the number of volunteer firefighters, probably most communities are struggling to put enough firefighters on fire ground," Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner Thomas Cook said.

Tax credits boosting morale

Columbia Borough started offering property tax credits to firefighters in 2018. Volunteers are required to respond to calls, attend department meetings and participate in fundraisers to receive either a 10% or 20% rebate from the borough's 8.0 mill property tax. (One mil equals $1 in property tax for every $1,000 of assessed value. So the owner of a $200,000 home in the borough would pay $1,600 in property taxes.)

Borough council President Heather Zink said the decision to adopt the tax credit predates her time on council, but she's glad the borough provides the fire department with that resource. Costing Columbia about $5,000 a year, the tax credit does not represent a financial hardship for the borough and is just one way to show volunteers their appreciation, she said.

After the state recently cleared up vague legislation on the school district's role in issuing rebates, Ryno said the Columbia school board hopped on almost immediately. Officials agreed to give double the support to its volunteers, a minimum of 20% and maximum of 40% of its 26.46 mill property tax, and also offer payments for 2023 despite the program being adopted late last year.

"We are proud to be among the first school districts in Lancaster County to adopt the Volunteer Firefighters Tax Credit Program," Columbia Borough School District Superintendent Ashley Rizzo said in a statement. "We hope that this initiative will encourage more individuals to step forward and join this dedicated team."

It's difficult to say whether the borough's program has made a major impact on the department's recruitment efforts, Ryno said, but he's certain it has improved morale.

"It's not like it's a (sizable) check that they're not gonna work anymore, but it's a token of appreciation. It's the elected officials showing their gratitude for the hours and time that's put in on behalf of the community, and the volunteers appreciate it," he said.

While volunteers aren't pouring in at a noticeable rate, Ryno said it's just as important to maintain the department's existing roster. Columbia has 55 volunteers who collectively respond to 750 calls a year while taking on the department's administrative roles and balancing their own full-time jobs.

In the coming years, Ryno hopes the borough and school district will consider upping the rate volunteers can claim.

Commissioner Cook agreed it's too early for the state to understand what kind of impact the rebate program has made on volunteer companies. Right now, he said anecdotal evidence shows things moving in a positive direction, but there isn't enough data to support that. Just 166 tax programs exist among the state's 2,400 emergency response agencies.

That could change soon. Cook said it's not a coincidence that so many Lancaster County municipalities are thinking about a rebate tax, as he's seeing a similar trend across the state. Elected officials are starting to become more educated about the volunteer crisis thanks to outreach efforts from the office of the state fire commissioner.

"I think part of that is educating municipal officials on their legal responsibility to provide for fire protection. It doesn't say they have to give their volunteer fire department $1 million," Cook said. "They're more educated about what their responsibility actually is and... they're starting to take it very seriously."

'No silver bullet'

The tax program is a worthy solution to correct a downward spiral that's been years in the making, but it does come with some caveats.

When a municipality or school district adopts its own program, the tax credit applies only to people who live and volunteer within its boundaries. Most companies aren't exclusively made up of volunteers from their own service area, so some will naturally be left out of the benefits.

Unless a tax program includes income tax credits, renters could also find themselves at the short end of the stick.

Duane Hagelgans, Blue Rock Fire Rescue commissioner and a Millersville University emergency management professor, said his company recently established its own program to ensure nearly all volunteers are compensated. Similar to Columbia, the maximum pay varies by the amount of time a volunteer puts in.

Hagelgans said Blue Rock set aside roughly $18,000 from its budget this year to benefit all 92 volunteers if they qualify. While most departments have little wiggle room for spending, Hagelgans credited Millersville Borough and Manor Township with generous contributions that made its program possible.

"It may seem like a lot of money, but if you think about the cost of an employee, it's not that bad," he said.

Cook said departments have developed a number of creative solutions to stay afloat, but he hasn't seen many like Blue Rock's.

Still, Cook noted each department has different needs that may require unique solutions. Some compensation programs will be successful and others might flop.

"The problem with fire service in Pennsylvania is there's no one silver bullet solution that will work (every time)."

©2024 LNP (Lancaster, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.