The lack of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical volunteers statewide -including the Delaware Valley – is a crisis.

Since the 1970s, volunteer firefighters’ ranks in Pennsylvania have dropped from 360,000 to fewer than 37,000, state Sen. Frank Farry (R-Bucks) said previously.

“When you have higher call volume and fewer people responding, the demands get greater,” Farry said.

On Thursday, Chester County Commissioners Marian Moskowitz, Josh Maxwell, and Michelle Kichline took a step to address that crisis by approving an ordinance enacting a tax rebate for volunteer members of Chester County-based fire companies and not-for-profit emergency medical services agencies.

The Active Volunteer Real Estate Tax Rebate Ordinance provides a financial incentive, in the form of a rebate, on Chester County real estate tax for first responder volunteers.

Volunteers can be an emergency responders, an administrative member of a fire company or EMS agency, or both.

“Generations of families in Chester County have made it their mission to serve their family, friends, neighbors, and community as volunteer firefighters and EMTs. It is a responsibility that requires extensive training and time, with a dedication like no other,” said Moskowitz. “This rebate is one way we can show how valued these volunteers are and add value for future generations of volunteer first responders.”

Chester County’s Active Volunteer Real Estate Tax Rebate program is based on a point system earned through emergency response calls, training, meeting attendance, public education activities, leadership roles, and other activities such as fundraising events. Attaining the maximum =points available will result in a 100 percent rebate on the county property tax, with lower point levels resulting in a lesser percentage tax rebate.

Volunteers must be residents of Chester County who volunteer with an eligible agency.

Maxwell said, “This real estate tax rebate is one of the commonwealth’s most comprehensive tax incentive programs and is the only such program in southeastern Pennsylvania. Our first responder volunteers are there for us every hour of every day, saving lives, and are very deserving of this. They give back to our communities in such an important way, and the least we can do is give back to them in the form of a rebate.”

Kichline added, “Chester County is the fastest growing county in Pennsylvania, so our population growth increases the need for first responder services – at a time when volunteerism is waning. We must find ways to keep our volunteers and attract new ones. By signing this ordinance today, Chester County is taking an important step to retain the expertise of the volunteer first responders that we have now and to incentivize those who are seriously thinking of becoming volunteers.”

The number of volunteer firefighters across America is rapidly declining, officials said. The volunteer incentive passed by the Chester County commissioners should help address volunteer recruitment and retention.
“I commend the commissioners for enacting this tax credit for the Volunteer First Responders in Chester County,” said Gerald R. DiNunzio Jr., president of the Chester County Fire Chiefs Association.
Phoenixville Fire Chief Eamon Brazunas told DVJournal the state legislature passed a law permitting the tax rebates in 2020, and some towns and counties have enacted it.
“The volunteer situation is a severe crisis, to say the least,” said Brazunas. “Anything that can be done to provide a new tool in the toolbox is great.”
He said he hopes the tax rebate will encourage volunteers to sign up and help fire companies retain their existing volunteers.
“It’s not automatic,” said Brazunas. “You have to work for it. And that’s a good thing.”
He said the free service of volunteer firefighters and EMS members is “a major savings” for municipalities. Otherwise, they would have to pay workers salaries and benefits, driving up costs and taxes.
“It’s a win-win for the community,” said Brazunas.

The ordinance signed by the commissioners is effective immediately, with volunteers being eligible for a real estate tax rebate applicable to the 2024 tax year for service provided between January 1 through December 31, 2023. County staff will contact all eligible volunteer fire and EMS agencies to share the criteria and application process for the real estate tax rebate program.

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