Volunteer firefighters are also eligible for an income tax credit. 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 support Governor Josh Shapiro’s call for state income tax credits to attract and retain new police officers, teachers, and nurses – three areas where there are labor shortages – I would also urge our new governor and General Assembly to introduce credits. state income tax for our volunteer firefighters.

While so much has changed since Ben Franklin’s “Bucket Brigade” with the founding of the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia in 1736, one thing has remained constant even since before our country was founded. Throughout Pennsylvania and much of America, we still rely heavily on volunteers to answer calls whenever there is a fire or nearly 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 our number of volunteer first responders has decreased, many of our larger cities have paid fire departments.

But for most of Pennsylvania, we still depend on — and should value even more — thousands of dedicated volunteers who in the proud neighbor-help-neighbor tradition of Franklin’s “bucket brigade” respond to calls during nearly every imaginable emergency.

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

But here’s the deal. If we don’t do everything we can to incentivize and improve our volunteer first responder ratings, Pennsylvanians should be setting themselves up for one of the largest municipal tax increases in history. Or, in many cases, we’ll be sure to say goodbye to our community-based firefighting company.

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Emergency alarms, pun intended, on our dwindling ranks of volunteer firefighters have sounded for decades. It was 20 years ago, as commissioner of East Pennsboro Township, that I was honored to represent our state’s first-class township on what is called the Senate Resolution 60 Commission.

Sponsored by the late state Sen. Mike Waugh, R-York, a volunteer firefighter himself, the resolution produces a comprehensive study and recommendations for meeting the needs of Pennsylvania’s emergency services.

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

While the General Assembly established a state income tax credit for emergency services volunteers in 2008, it was repealed after just one year with no time required to prove benefits.

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Subsequent legislation allowed city, county, and school district governments to provide tax breaks for volunteer first responders and, fortunately, a number of these local entities are currently 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 firefighters and EMS personnel.

But now is the time for the country to step back. It’s been a long time since we revived and made the state income tax credit permanent for our volunteer first responders.

Taken together, tax credits at both the state and local levels could provide substantive incentives to improve the ranks of those who voluntarily perform this essential service for their fellow citizens.

As I watched Shapiro’s budget speech, it was heartening to see all members of the General Assembly, regardless of party, applaud when the governor recognized our state’s firefighter services.

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

But what about the majority of our firefighters who don’t get paid for everything they do? Just as there is a need to recruit new police officers, nurses, and teachers, there is a need to address the alarming reduction in the number of our volunteer firefighters.

They deserve so much more than a standing ovation. They are entitled to state income tax credits as well.

For a span of nearly 40 years, Jim Hertzler, a Democrat, served as school board member, municipal commissioner, and county commissioner in Cumberland County. He retired from elected public service in late 2019 after two terms as Commissioner for the County of Cumberland. His work occasionally appears on the Capital-Star Comments Page.

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