In an effort to retain the ranks of volunteer fire companies, the Senate today unanimously adopted Sen. Lisa Baker’s bill that would give municipalities the power to waive their local earned income tax for volunteer first responders. Volunteers at nonprofit emergency medical service (EMS) agencies would also be eligible to receive the tax credit under the provisions of Senate Bill 299, which was cosponsored by Sen. Sean Wiley, D-Erie.
The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for its consideration.
“Many Pennsylvanians do not realize that 96 percent of our firefighters are not paid for jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to fight a fire or run to the scene of an accident,” Baker, R-Lehman Township, said. “Giving firefighters and EMTs a small break on their local taxes is a simple benefit that will compensate them in some small measure for their priceless life-saving work.”
The idea for the legislation was bolstered by a joint hearing on firefighter and EMT retention and recruitment held in 2013 by the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, which Baker chaired for seven years, and the Majority Policy Committee. That led to a series of meetings held by a workgroup focusing on the challenges facing firefighting and some suggestions to bolster the ranks of the volunteers. Extending an earned income tax credit was among a menu of solutions offered by experts as a preferred recruitment and retention tool.
Baker noted in remarks offered on the Senate floor that “this legislation is not a mandate but a guide for local officials to act in the best interest of their respective community.” Among the options municipalities can use if opting to enact the waiver are: having the power to set the amount of the tax credit and the guidelines of the program and including language specifying the number of calls to which a volunteer must answer and the level of training they must have.
“Although the tax credit program would be optional for local governments, we hope every municipality will see the virtue of keeping and attracting its volunteer firefighters. When those first flames begin, every second counts. We cannot afford to sound the alarm and find that no one is available,” Baker said.
Baker said the bill is just one way the legislature hopes to fill the rapidly declining ranks of the state’s volunteer firefighters and EMTs, which has dropped from 300,000 to 50,000 in 30 years. The decrease is attributed largely to the prevalence of two-income families, the demands of incessant fundraising, local leadership conflicts, and the stagnant economy.
In the 20th Senatorial District, which encompasses parts of Luzerne and Susquehanna counties and all of Pike, Wayne and Wyoming counties, more than 70 volunteer fire companies serve their communities, though not all of those communities have an earned income tax.
“I am pleased to work in a bipartisan way with Sen. Sean Wiley, my colleague who represents the opposite corner of the Commonwealth, but who shares the belief that giving a new tool will help our municipalities and will ensure that we have volunteers ready and willing to answer the call,” Baker added.