Municipalities to cooperate on fire service?
Pennsylvania has plenty of volunteer fire companies. As of 2018 there are 1,837 companies with 94 percent of them staffed by volunteers. However, there has been a decrease in the number of volunteers in the past few decades. According to one estimate the number of volunteers stands at around 50,000, much lower than the 300,000 volunteers in the 1970s. Time commitments to other activities and jobs, an increase in required training and fundraising are cited as core reasons for the decline.
In an effort to try and boost volunteer ranks, the state in 2016 approved Act 172 to enable municipalities to offer a tax credit for wage or real estate taxes paid by active volunteers of fire companies. This incentive is now offered by South Strabane Township in Washington County, which the township’s board of supervisors approved in October.
The township is also involved in very preliminary discussions to explore the creation of a multi-municipal fire district with two other municipalities. They are Canton Township, which has volunteer-only service, and the City of Washington, which has paid firefighter service.
The process, should it move forward, would be coordinated by the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). There were 20 successful mergers/consolidations of 49 volunteer fire companies that DCED was involved with from 1997 to 2004, according to a 2005 study on the feasibility of regionalizing fire service in Pennsylvania. Eight of those involved more than one municipality and the remainder were intra-municipal combinations.
It is quite possible that the same issues that are raised with school district consolidations–cost-sharing, taxes, capital assets and community pride–that we noted in a recent Brief could also be present with the proposed fire company combination in Washington County and across the state.