Volunteer firefighters deserve an income tax credit too. This is why | Opinion

By Jim Hertzler

They perform a critical public service.  They don’t get paid for what they do.  The least they deserve is a tax break.

While I enthusiastically endorse Gov. Josh Shapiro’s call for a state income tax credit to attract and retain new police officers, teachers, and nurses – three areas where there is a growing workforce shortage – I would also urge our new governor and General Assembly to enact a state income tax credit for our volunteer firefighters.

While so much has changed since Ben Franklin’s “Bucket Brigade” with his 1736 founding of the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia, one thing has remained a constant since even before our nation’s founding. Throughout Pennsylvania and much of America, we still rely heavily on volunteers to answer the call whenever there’s a fire or most any other emergency.

They perform a critical public service. They don’t get paid for what they do. The least they deserve is a tax break.

To be sure, over the years, as the ranks of our volunteer first responders have declined, many of our larger municipalities have paid fire departments.

But for most of Pennsylvania, we still depend on — and should more greatly appreciate — the thousands of dedicated volunteers who in the proud neighbor-helping-neighbor tradition of Franklin’s “bucket brigade” respond to the call during just about every imaginable emergency.

Those who continue to volunteer as protectors of life and property in our communities remain the true public servants of our time.

But here’s the deal.  If we don’t do whatever we can to incentivize and bolster the ranks of our volunteer first responders, Pennsylvania’s citizens should brace themselves for one of the largest municipal tax increases in history. Or, in too many cases, we will undoubtedly kiss our community-based fire companies goodbye.

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The emergency alarm, pun intended, on the shrinking ranks of our volunteer firefighters has been sounding for decades. It was 20 years ago, then as an East Pennsboro Township commissioner, that I was honored to represent our state’s first-class townships on what was called the Senate Resolution 60 Commission.

Sponsored by the late state state Sen. Mike Waugh, R-York,  a volunteer firefighter himself, the resolution resulted in a comprehensive study and recommendations to address Pennsylvania’s emergency service needs.

Among the first handful of 23 recommendations was a proposal for a state income tax credit against the taxes our community emergency service volunteers pay on income from their regular jobs. It was identified as a way to incentivize recruitment, especially among our younger wage-earning adults, to become emergency service volunteers in their hometowns.

While the General Assembly did establish a state income tax credit for emergency service volunteers in 2008, it was scrapped after only one year without the time needed to prove its benefit.

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Subsequent legislation enabled municipalities, counties and school districts to grant tax breaks for volunteer first responders and, fortunately, today a number of these local entities are doing just that. Last year, Cumberland County became the first county in Pennsylvania to authorize a real estate tax credit of up to $250 for active volunteer fire and EMS personnel.

But it’s time now for the state to step back up to the plate. It’s long past time to resurrect and make permanent a state income tax credit for our volunteer first responders.

Taken together, a tax credit at both the state and local levels can provide a substantive incentive to bolster the ranks of those who volunteer to perform this critical service for their fellow citizens.

As I watched Shapiro’s budget address, it was encouraging to see all members of the General Assembly, regardless of party, rise to applaud when the governor recognized the service of our state’s firefighters.

The governor’s first budget appears to provide some new dollars to support our firefighters and first responders for training, equipment and “salaries.”

But what about the vast majority of our firefighters who don’t get paid for all that they do?   Just like there’s a need to recruit new police officers, nurses and teachers, so too is the need to address the alarming reduction in the ranks of our volunteer firefighters.

They deserve more than a standing ovation.  They deserve a state income tax credit too.

Over a span of nearly 40 years, Jim Hertzler, a Democrat, served as a school board member, a township commissioner and a county commissioner in Cumberland County. He retired from his elected public service at the end of 2019 after two terms as a Cumberland County Commissioner. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Capital-Star Guest Contributor

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