Cranberry OKs tax credits for firefighters
Rachel WagonerEagle Staff Writer
CRANBERRY TWP — Some municipalities are looking into offering tax credits to their volunteer firefighters as a way to reward them for their service and help the departments recruit new members.
Cranberry Township Supervisors were the first in the county to approve an ordinance that would give eligible volunteer firefighters up to a $250 earned income tax credit. The board passed that ordinance on Oct. 26.
“It’s a small token of our gratitude to our firefighters who do such a tremendous job,” said Richard Hadley, chairman of the board of supervisors, at the meeting where the ordinance was approved.
Zelienople and Penn Township are also looking into offering the same for their firefighters, said Adam Hartwig, executive director of the Butler County Council of Governments.
The COG researched the best way to approach the new opportunity and came up with a model ordinance and forms and minimum criteria to be eligible for the credit to make it easier for municipalities to adopt.
“We wanted them to recognize this excellent tool was available to them,” Hartwig said.
The move to give back to volunteers came after Gov. Tom Wolf signed Act 172 last fall. The law permits municipalities to offer a real estate or earned income tax credit to active members of volunteer fire companies and nonprofit emergency medical service agencies. Municipalities can choose whether to offer the earned income tax credit and real estate tax credit.
Hartwig, who is also the Winfield Township secretary, said the COG decided the credit through the earned income tax would be best so as not to overburden municipal administrators with extra paperwork. Municipal earned income tax collection is handled by Berkheimer and Associates throughout the county, and Hartwig said they were already prepared to handle the additional work.
Bill Leonard, Berk-heimer’s director of sales and marketing, said everyone in Pennsylvania who works is levied an earned income tax at a rate of 1 percent of their gross pay. In Butler County, EIT tax revenue is split 50/50 between the municipality where the taxpayer lives and the school district educating students in that municipality, he said.
He stressed that the EIT tax credit permitted under Act 172 will come off the municipality’s half only.
Leonard said if they decide to offer the tax credit to fire department volunteers, municipal leaders must adopt an ordinance allowing the credit and set criteria volunteers must meet to qualify as “active” in their fire department.
The COG recommends at minimum firefighters should attend at least three fire company meetings and three fire company or state-certified trainings a year, participate in at least one fundraising activity per year, if applicable, and meet any other requirements set forth by each fire company’s bylaws and standard operating guidelines to be considered active, Hartwig said.
Cranberry requires firefighters to earn 40 points to be considered active. Points can be earned through training, holding office, running calls, fire safety and education activities and other things, said David Gallagher, township director of fire and emergency services. The program will begin in Jan. 1, 2018, for taxes that will be filed in 2019.
As part of the ordinance, township and borough officials also must set the maximum amount to be credited to volunteers, Leonard said.
He said the maximum amount would be either $250 or half of 1 percent of the volunteer’s total gross income, whichever is less. For an earner who makes $50,000 per year, that amount would be $250.
Volunteers who are eligible for the tax credit would still see the EIT collected from their paycheck, and would file for the refund when he or she files his year-end taxes.
“They would then get a check with the lump sum (of the tax credit),” Leonard said.
He explained the tax is collected throughout the year in case the volunteer does not work in the same municipality where he or she volunteers.
Leonard is in favor of the EIT tax credit, which also can be applied to volunteers like ladies auxiliary members who meet criteria set by the municipality.
“It helps out volunteers for the time they spend,” Leonard said. “Obviously it’s not going to compensate them for everything they do for the community, but it’s a pretty good idea.”
Steve Bicehouse, who is the Evans City fire chief and county emergency services director, said the tax credit for fire department volunteers is a good idea.
“I think any effort that the community can have to support the volunteers in the community is a positive thing,” Bicehouse said.
Hartwig said the COG views it as a way for municipalities to reward their current members rather than recruit new ones as $250 may not be enough to entice someone to commit the time necessary to be an active firefighter.
The COG also realized the program may be problematic in some ways, he said. It won’t benefit retired firefighters who have no earned income, and some smaller municipalities may struggle with affording it.
Regina Greenwald, the Slippery Rock council president, said while Cranberry may be able to afford the hit in tax revenue, many smaller municipalities could struggle with the reduction.
“Cranberry is unique in that that’s the kind of funds they have,” Greenwald said. “If we do $250 (tax credit), that’s a lot of money the borough could lose.”
Don Pepe, Zelienople manager, said the borough is working to coordinate its ordinance with the three other municipalities covered by the Harmony Fire District — Harmony and Jackson and Lancaster townships. Once it is ready it will go before the borough council for a vote.
Phil Wulff, Center Township supervisor and a veteran member of the Unionville department, said he thinks the tax credit is something that the supervisors could take a look at implementing.
Years ago, the department would have to put a freeze on membership because it only had so much equipment for volunteers to use, Wulff said. Today, Unionville and other departments have the opposite problem.
“We can always use help, we can always use more people,” he said.
Nathan Wulff, Unionville fire chief, said that $250 may not entice many people to volunteer, but he thinks it would be a positive initiative.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
Eagle staff writers Paula Grubbs and Joe Genco contributed to this report.