By Joe Napsha
IRWIN, Pa. — Irwin's fire chief is seeking the same tax breaks his fellow firefighters in North Huntingdon will receive under a state law, but with a twist.
Chief Justin Mochar has asked Irwin Council to adopt an ordinance under Act 172 that would allow the borough to offer property tax rebates of 20 percent on owner-occupied homes and an earned income tax refund for active volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services personnel.
“We should look into that. They (active firefighters) give up thousands of hours every year” volunteering at the department, Mochar said last week.
Mochar also asked council to consider a reciprocal agreement with North Huntingdon that would grant Irwin residents who are active volunteers with any of the township's seven fire departments to receive tax breaks and give North Huntingdon residents the same tax breaks if they volunteer for Irwin's department.
The 2016 state law authorizing municipalities the option of granting the tax breaks to active volunteers in fire departments and emergency services does not extend to anyone living outside that municipality. Act 172 was designed to help the organizations recruit new members to replace those retiring. Volunteer fire department ranks statewide have thinned because of a shortage of new members.
A reciprocal agreement with North Huntingdon on the tax breaks would help a few firefighters in Irwin's department, including Mochar, said Shawn Stitely, Irwin's deputy fire chief. The fire department has about 30 active volunteers, he said.
“It would be fair if everyone got it. We should do it for all the (active) volunteers” in both fire departments, Stitely said.
Irwin has discussed incentives to keep members and attract younger ones to volunteer, said Irwin Council President Rick Burdelski. Tax incentives are one option the borough could look into, he said.
North Huntingdon Commissioner Zach Haigis, president of the board, said he “would be open” to the idea of reciprocal agreement with Irwin.
North Huntingdon remains the only municipality in Westmoreland County that has submitted documentation to the Office of State Fire Commissioner showing adoption of Act 172, according to the fire commissioner's office. The act took effect in January 2017.
The Volunteer Service Credit Program that North Huntingdon approved in February gives a 20 percent credit on township real estate tax bills and a $250 refund on earned income tax to emergency responders who have completed one year of service and met the requirements for volunteering.
Firefighters are considered active if they respond to 10 percent of a department's emergency calls and are involved in 20 hours of annual training, plus help with 35 percent of the fundraising events. EMS volunteers are considered active if they provide 120 hours of service, including staffing hours, meetings and training.
Firefighters can get the earned income tax credit this year but will have to wait until 2018 to get a break on township property tax bill.
Jeff Silka, North Huntingdon manager, said he wasn't certain how much revenue the township might lose through the tax incentive because they have yet to see how many active volunteers would qualify.
Burdelski said he didn't know the financial impact on Irwin but added, “It would cost a lot more to have paid firefighters.”
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