I've said many times, Pennsylvania's fire and ambulance volunteers deserve more than our thanks; they deserve a tax break.

And finally, with final passage and the governor's signature on legislation I've advocated for nearly five years, those who respond without pay 24/7, 365 days a year to just about any and every imaginable emergency in our communities will finally get one.

Effective when they file their 2008 state income tax returns next year, Pennsylvania's active fire, ambulance and rescue company volunteers will get a $100 state income tax credit. It's a smaller tax break than I had hoped, and clearly smaller than what our dedicated volunteers deserve, but it's a start. Guidelines to be established by the state fire commissioner and by the director of the Health Department's Office of Emergency Medical Services will determine active status for eligibility. The guidelines will take into consideration factors such as the number of calls responded to by a volunteer, training and participation in drills; and time spent on administration, maintenance of facilities and equipment, and support activities.

The tax credit is a common sense incentive aimed at helping to keep the proud tradition of Pennsylvania's community-based volunteer fire and EMS system alive; a tool to, hopefully, help our emergency service organizations stem the decline in the ranks of our volunteers which have shrunk from an estimated 152,000 in 1985 to 70,000 or fewer today.

My proposal for a state income tax credit for Pennsylvania's volunteers -- first introduced in September 2003 -- was recommended in November 2004, by a special bipartisan task force (the Senate Resolution 60 Commission) that was created for the purpose of working to improve the delivery of emergency services in Pennsylvania. And then, last summer, my proposal was picked as the No. 1 recruitment and retention recommendation in a statewide survey of our volunteers themselves.

Originally, my bill called for a $250 state income tax credit. But, as I said, the $100 credit contained in the bill signed by the governor is a beginning; and, frankly, a good beginning considering the fiscal constraints of a difficult state budget year.

There is a modest cost to the state General Fund for this initiative, but, compared to the cost that would be borne by our taxpayers if we lost our volunteers and our community-based volunteer fire and ambulance companies, it is minuscule.

The fact is, more than 90 percent of Pennsylvania's municipalities still rely on volunteers for fire and emergency service response. A study by the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute (PFESI) estimated the "value" of the service provided by our volunteer emergency service responders at an eye-popping $6 billion a year. If we lose our volunteers, that same study estimated that it would cost taxpayers a conservative $2.2 billion annually to pay for firefighter salaries and benefits alone.

The bottom line is simply this: Those who volunteer to answer emergency calls for help from their neighbors in need perform a critical public service in our communities. It is a service that our communities can neither do without; nor could they afford if not for our volunteers.

The least that these volunteer first responders deserve is a tax break. I'm glad they'll finally be getting one.

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