The Springfield Township Volunteer Fire Department is asking township supervisors to consider adopting a 1.5-mill fire tax and approve a higher Local Services Tax to help with rising costs, measures that would strengthen Station 77's abilities to protect its members and the community.

"Safety is my goal," Fire Chief Micah Swartz said Tuesday night during a public meeting at the township building.

About 40 people came to listen to the department's budget presentation, which included information on projected expenses, equipment, training and apparatus needs and where things stand.

"Everybody's having the same problems," Swartz said of volunteer fire departments struggling to keep up with the bills while also making sure they're serving their municipalities to the best of their abilities. By the end of the meeting, which lasted about 1½ hours, attendees seemed to favor the fire tax and the higher LST, which would go from $5 a person per year for those who work in the township to $52 a year -- the maximum amount allowed by the state; those earning less than $12,000 would be exempt from the LST, also known as the occupational privilege tax.

Swartz began his presentation by urging residents, business owners and taxpayers to keep an open mind because the tax proposal centers on safety as the top priority.

"We want to continue to be good stewards," he said.

He reviewed the department's history: it was chartered in March 1950; the first engine was a 1929 model that held 225 gallons of water and was purchased in 1948 from Mercer; the first station was built in 1956, the second one in 1988 and the current one in 2011; and the first new fire engine was bought in 1975.

Station 77 has 28 active members and eight are certified as "Firefighter I," meaning they have a higher level of training. Two members are also emergency medical technicians, eight of them are basic vehicle rescue technicians, eight are working on "Firefighter II" certification and many of them are cross-trained in structural collapse and trench rescue emergencies.

The department averages 200 to 250 calls a year and they have four apparatuses: a 2002 KME that holds 1,000 gallons and seats five; a 1993 Pierce that holds 1,250 gallons and seats five, and needs replaced; a 2005 Ford that holds 225 gallons and seats three; and a 2009 Freightliner that holds 1,800 and seats three.

They also have a foam trailer that has been dispatched to two recent fires at Hilcorp-owned natural gas well sites - one on Aug. 15 in Jefferson Township and another on Sept. 6 in Shenango Township. "Our trailer was the one that extinguished the fire in Jefferson Township," Swartz said.

The department's wish list includes: replacing the pumper truck, which could cost about $420,000; buying a new or used ladder truck, which runs from $800,000 to $1 million; securing more EMT and "Firefighter II" training, among other certifications; and buying additional equipment like gear and thermal imaging cameras. They have one camera right now; they cost about $13,000.

Swartz described some of the department's challenges in relation to the township's commercial properties, which continue to expand. The Holiday Day Inn Express has a truss roof, which is not stable in the event of a fire, he said.

He showed a photo of the department's 35-foot extension ladder against the rear of the hotel; the top of the ladder just barely reaches the top of the roof.

"That ladder reaches two rungs above the gutter line," he said, adding that it should be at least five rungs above.

Their ladder is inadequate and Swartz said he would never put his volunteers on that roof during a fire; they would have to find other means to battle the blaze.

"You don't trust the truss," he said of the design, which he described as lightweight; discussion later in the meeting noted the roof meets the Uniform Construction Code.

They have to continue to train and adapt to the changes that come with new construction, especially since more hotels, restaurants and stores are in the works, Swartz said.

It's also important to consider the existing businesses, structures, facilities and areas in the township that have had or could have fires or other emergencies: hay and livestock barns; high-volume grain bins; gas stations that are very close to commercial buildings and/or the fireworks store; the airport, which includes the skydiving business; a large outlet mall; Leesburg Falls and more.

"We face a lot of challenges," he said. "The safety of the people in this fire department is paramount to me."

Most of the department's revenue comes from a yearly contribution from the township, an annual letter drive, pool water delivery and a golf outing fundraiser. They haven't had an increase in funding from the township in over six years, and that amount is $35,000 a year plus about $10,000 a year for equipment needs; they also receive some funding from Liberty and Plain Grove townships.

"The fire department is currently operating on a deficit," said Fire Captain Chad Patterson, also the department's treasurer.

His budget report shows they expect to be roughly $9,124 in the red by the end of the year; insurance and workman's compensation expenses are on the rise, he noted.

The fire department approached township supervisors about two years ago with a request for more money, said Richard Dillaman, co-chair of the board of supervisors. They were willing to help the firefighters as long as they could compile more data and facts, he said, adding the supervisors have to keep the taxpayers in mind.

"But it's nobody's fault," Dillaman said of the rising costs.

He referred to an article from January that appeared in the Pennsylvania Township News magazine titled "Emergency, emergency! Townships grapple with how to resuscitate struggling volunteer fire companies."

"Volunteer fire departments are saving lives...and they are also saving tax dollars," he read from the article. "The places that have been most successful in helping their fire companies are the ones where everyone sat down, talked, and developed a plan for getting from Point A to Point B."

Dillaman conferred with the Pennsylvania State Association of Townships regarding the local services tax and the fire tax and said those seem to be the most viable options out there for helping the fire department.

He also worked with Patricia Wimer, the township's secretary/treasurer, and Berkheimer Tax Administrators, which collects earned income taxes and the occupational privilege tax for Mercer County municipalities.

The township's current occupational privilege tax - $5 a year for each person who works in the township - brings in about $20,000. Raising that to $52 a year, or $1 a week, would bring in about $41,600 to $46,800.

A 1.5-mill fire tax would be dedicated to fire services and has the potential to generate about $80,000 in yearly revenue, Dillaman said. If approved, residential taxpayers' bills would average an additional $4 to $132 a year, depending on the assessed value of their property; commercial properties could expect an increase of a few hundred dollars up to about $1,500 a year.

If both measures are implemented, the fire department would break even by 2018, he said, adding the $52 LST would take effect in 2015 while the fire tax wouldn't be on the tax rolls until fall 2015.

The budget document shows the township's contribution to the department decreasing to $25,000 in 2015 and then down to zero starting in 2016 - if the two tax measures are approved.

The savings would most likely go right back into the township for things like road maintenance and equipment and put away for other expenses, Dillaman said.

If no changes are made and the fire department continues to operate the way it has been with limited resources, they'll end up a few hundred thousand dollars in the hole, Dillaman said.

The fire department, which also applies for grants but doesn't often receive them, is asking the township for an $80,000 advance for the ladder truck. That's reflected in the budget as well as money set aside for new turnout gear.

Firefighter Greg Woods, president of the department, said they're also in the process of revamping by-laws and obtaining non-profit status.

When asked for input or questions, township resident Judy Hines said the tax proposal will save lives.

"You're helping all of us," she said, many in the room nodding their agreement.

The supervisors meet at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and it's likely this issue will come up for discussion, said Dillaman, who expects they'll act on the two tax measures by the end of November at the latest.

"Judy, Gary and I have big decisions to make," he said, referring to fellow supervisors Judy Hassler and Gary Hartman.

Published Oct. 4, 2014, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.

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