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Chester County Commissioners Ink Real Estate Tax Rebate for Volunteer Fire Company and EMS Members

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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Israel’s EMS Volunteers Rush to Aid Victims of Hamas Terror

Just weeks ago, the volunteers of United Hatzalah, Israel’s premier all-volunteer emergency medical service organization, were celebrating a member who saved the life of a three-year-old boy who suffered cardiac arrest at a park.

On Saturday, many of those same volunteers found themselves coming to the aid of men, women, and children across Israel in the wake of the most deadly terror attack in their nation’s history.

“It was immediate,” Jeremy Cole with United Hatzalah of Israel told DCJournal. “United Hatzalah has an average 92-second response time throughout Israel. That’s done through our nearly 7,000 volunteers and our immense technological capabilities used to auto-locate and dispatch our volunteers. So, we were able to respond almost instantly and work alongside the deployed forces that were out there fighting the war as we were treating them on the front lines.”

United Hatzalah is a nonprofit, volunteer emergency medical service (EMS) organization that helps people free of charge. It has treated more than five million people since 2006 and 675,000 last year alone.

Last fall, the organization also partnered with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) in a joint training drill simulating a missile strike on a kibbutz – an intentional community in Israel. A second simulated missile strike hit during the exercise. United Hatzalah said at the time that it was important to prepare for any scenario and the chaos that might happen during it.

Cole was impressed by the selflessness of the volunteers in the warzone. “We just had one of our paramedics in an ambu car…that was riddled with AK-47 bullets. Thankfully, he was okay and managed to survive and continue to go on to save lives after that. But putting yourself in harm’s way in a role that’s primarily focused on saving lives as a medic is so unbelievably selfless.”

Other nonprofits are also involved in the effort. The Jewish National Fund USA (JNF-USA), a group that plans developments in Israel and the Negev Desert, provided food and water to IDF soldiers and families in Gaza.

JNF-USA released data this week showing most Gaza refugees have been fleeing to the Arava community along the Israel-Jordan border. JNF’s Arava Emergency Response Center (ERC) volunteers have been protecting the refugees.

“The people who they are guarding…are the people of the emergency response and the volunteers,” Noa Zer, Director of Resource Development, Central Arava Regional Council, said during a briefing. ERC volunteers are also involved in providing medical assistance to the wounded and evacuating them from danger.

The group also provided equipment, including encrypted radios and 115 security volunteer kits featuring bulletproof vests, helmets, and tactical clothing. It also set up bomb shelters across Israel in hopes of protecting people from any attacks. Unfortunately, 260 people hiding in one JNF-USA shelter were killed by a Hamas bomber.

“I have no words to describe how this makes me feel and all of us feel,” said Dr. Sol Lizerbram, JNF-USA president, in a separate briefing on the group’s work. “This is beyond the depths of evil.”

Hundreds have died, and thousands have been injured since the war started. It has caused the International Committee of the Red Cross to warn that “a humanitarian disaster” is likely if both parties don’t show restraint. The United Nations also asked for humanitarian aid in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Defense Minister Yav Gallant said, “We are fighting human animals, and we will act accordingly…We are imposing a complete siege on Gaza. There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything will be closed.”

What won’t be closed is the work being done by volunteers. They promise to keep working despite the first war in Israel in decades. A war that does not distinguish between military, Israeli, and Palestinian civilians or the paramedic hiding in a kitchen as bullets fly around her.

“Our number one goal is to save any life we can, no matter who the person is,” said Cole. “And that we have a dedicated base of volunteers that are doing that right now…We need help with gaining supplies to continue to tourniquet legs and repair bullet wounds and defibrillate elderly and those infirm and sick and transport people to hospitals.”

Hogan Bill Would Give $7,500 Tax Break to Firefighters, EMS

With volunteers making up more than 90 percent of the state’s firefighters, one Bucks County lawmaker wants Pennsylvania to pony up with a tax credit to help local departments recruit and retain these valuable volunteers.

State Rep. Joe Hogan (R-Feasterville) has introduced legislation to create a tax credit for firefighters and EMS personnel to help recruit and retain their services.

“The pandemic, with its resulting shutdowns and civil unrest, has had a disastrous impact on recruitment, as communities that rely on volunteers to fill these needs have experienced an unprecedented drop in recruitment,” Hogan said. “We should do anything we can to promote more recruitment into these professions so our communities can keep their citizens safe.”

House Bill 1557 would give a $7,500 tax credit to fire and EMS personnel currently serving in Pennsylvania and those who move to our state to take those positions. The tax break, which would be paid in $2,500 increments over three years, would go to both volunteers and paid first responders.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, volunteers account for 96.8 percent of firefighters in Pennsylvania, the second only to Delaware. The national average is 70.2 percent. Since the 1970s, volunteer firefighters have fallen from 360,000 to fewer than 37,000.

“I am now proposing we provide the same tax relief to firefighters and emergency medical service personnel that we recently gave to teachers, police officers, and nurses,” Hogan said, “Both provide lifesaving services and are critical to the standard of living that each Pennsylvanian should expect. Firefighters and EMS personnel are some of the most crucial workers in the commonwealth, and we should do whatever we can to keep them in the state.”

Fire Chief Eamon Brazunas of the Phoenixville volunteer fire company said he thinks the bill is a good idea.

“Yes, $2,500 is significant,” said Brazunas. He remembered about 10 years ago, the legislature offered $100. To qualify, firefighters had to fill out pages of paperwork. “The first thing is the retention part. I mean, you have guys and gals still volunteering, and you have people maybe toward the end of their volunteer life, for lack of a better term. If something can be done to keep folks involved for a few more years…Tax credits aren’t bad. Financially, $2,500 is significant.”

“So it’s really a win-win for the community,” said Brazunas. “And also for the volunteers.”

Robert Brooks, president of the Pennsylvania Professional Fire Firefighters Association, supports the bill.

“The Pennsylvania Professional Fire Fighter Association (PPFFA) is made up of nearly 10,000 members of the professional fire and emergency medical professions,” said Brooks. “Our Executive Board and our members support enhanced public safety policies, measures, and legislation. Allowing new hires to receive a tax credit could provide the opportunity to hire more professionals across the commonwealth in various municipalities.

We look forward to working on this bill and other priorities that would treat mental health as an injury for post-traumatic stress, cancer screenings for our members, and continued collective barging rights and protections.

House Bill 1557 now heads to the House Finance Committee for consideration.

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Delco Dumps $10M on New Health Dept. While EMS Is on ‘Life Support’

Delaware County’s gleaming new health department last month marked its first year in operation after what the county said was “a year of accomplishments.”

Emergency first responders in the county may agree to disagree.

That was the topic of discussion at last month’s “EMS on Life Support” meeting in Brookhaven, where county council members, state legislators, and emergency first responders gathered to discuss the crises facing local ambulance and rescue workers, including bare-bones insurance reimbursements, low rates of pay, and chronic staffing issues.

The major financial squeeze comes as the year-old Delaware County Health Department is drawing millions of dollars to fund its operating expenses. The county health department’s 2023 budget will cost $18,294,538 for 2022-2023, with its “primary funding sources” being “grants and reimbursements.”

Brookhaven EMS Administrator Dave Montella said at the April meeting, “If something doesn’t change in the next year, year and a half,” then Delaware County “will not be in the EMS service, period.”

Montella told DVJournal that “the issues that we’re facing, primarily, are staffing and gross underpayments from insurance companies.”

“It’s basically providing a chokehold,” he said.

Montella said there were “multiple reasons for the staffing issues,” which he noted go back as far as 2017. He said at that time, “We saw a gradual decrease in people entering into the profession,” while emergency responders began to struggle with retention rates as well.

“Definitely post-COVID, and during, we lost tremendous numbers of people,” he explained, estimating “probably, nationwide, a greater-than-30 percent loss of EMS providers” in the wake of the pandemic.

Insurance companies are paying out low reimbursements, Montella said, and consequently, rescue squads and local governments have had to keep pay rates low for emergency workers.

The end result is EMS workers leaving “to work at restaurants, Home Depot, Lowes. They’re getting more money there when they’re doing a job when there’s no danger of bringing something to home to their family,” he said.

Asked about the new county health department, Montella said it is “completely separate” from county EMS operations and “has no bearing” on any emergency services.

“It’s just something the county thought it needed to do to provide for the residents to get strong advice, particularly during the pandemic,” he said.

Delaware County state Rep. Lisa Borowski told DVJournal the health department’s outreach functions will help “support our fire/EMS [by] providing people increased access to preventive healthcare and keeping people healthy, so there are less emergent situations.”

Regarding more funding for EMS workers, Borowski (D-Newtown Square) pointed to her introduction of House Bill 479, which she said would “allow for EMS to be reimbursed for transport of Medicaid patients.”

That bill was unanimously voted out of committee Monday and will go to the full house.

Rep. Jennifer O’Mara(D-Springfield) thanked Borowski for authoring it.

“We have hospital closures impacting our communities all across the commonwealth,” said O’Mara. “And one of the things I’ve heard from EMS providers is they’re now forced to drive longer distances. Now they may not be out of the 20 mile range, but they’re still taking on more and in the ambulance for longer periods of time. So anything that’s been done to address this issue, I think that’s been a really important part of the bill. Anything we can do to help them is huge in so many different ways. So I just wanted to thank the maker of the bill for working on this. Thank you.”

“Currently, they do not get reimbursed until they transport 20 miles, this bill will eliminate the mileage requirement, so EMS get paid for services,” Borowski said.

“But we also need to lobby to increase Medicaid reimbursement,” she added, “and I hope to work with our federal representatives to address this issue.”

In addition to low reimbursements, Borowski said insurance billing practices present another hurdle for EMS administrators to overcome.

“Direct billing by some insurance companies sees the reimbursements being sent to the patient with the expectation they then pay the EMS for care,” she said. “This does not always happen, and in many cases, the [return on investment] on trying to recoup these funds presents a challenge for volunteers whose time is stretched with many responsibilities.”

Montella agreed reimbursement problems are the major hurdle to driving up pay rates for responders.

“We would love to pay them more,” he said, “but our only way of paying them is through medical reimbursement. We don’t have the ability to pass it on to the consumer.”

In addition to its high price tag amid local EMS financial struggles, the new county health department has been mired in administrative controversy since its inception.

And an analysis of the functions that county officials claimed credited to the new health department showed they were actually performed by the state, such as COVID-19 vaccines, and showed many were given before the health department began, meaning the tally was 2,364 rather than 172,000.

Also, a Johns Hopkins student who examined health services in the county found the county could do better by creating better organization around the services already provided by the state instead of creating its own health department.

Townships in Delaware County previously balked at the proposal that the health department take over health inspections overseen by local inspectors. In some cases, the fee hike on those inspections was projected to top 500 percent.

Multiple Delco towns asked the county Court of Common Pleas to block the plan’s implementation. The court maintained an injunction against the inspections for much of 2022.

In October, Common Pleas Judge Spiros Angelos formally barred the county from conducting inspections in first-class townships, though lower-level municipalities will still be subject to county health department oversight.

The health department, county council and the Delaware County Black Caucus will hold an open house at the  remodeled DCHD Wellness Center in Chester on Saturday from 11 a.m. t0 2 p.m. with a rain date set for Sunday.  The Wellness Center is 151 W. 5th Street in Chester.

“The revitalization of our Wellness Center at Chester is a symbol of our commitment to the people of Chester and its surrounding communities,” said Director Melissa Lyon. “The first step in helping people feel better is making them feel welcomed and invited into our Wellness Centers.”

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