Supervisors in Penn Forest Township had hoped that a special public meeting held on Monday night at Penn Forest Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 would allow residents to work out any differences they had with local fire companies over funding for next year. Unfortunately, most of the residents who attended the meeting were involved in one of the two fire companies and by the meeting's end supervisors felt that they still didn't know how residents stood on the issue.
At last month's normal monthly meeting, supervisors announced the public meeting and told residents in attendance that it would offer the fire companies an opportunity to explain why the township needed to levy a new fire tax. At the meeting on Monday night, supervisor Chairman Paul Montemuro said that residents left that earlier meeting with the wrong idea.
"We've getting calls at the township from residents who think the fire tax has already been enacted," Montemuro said. "They didn't come to the meeting because they thought it was a waste of time."
Montemuro said that township supervisors have not decided to levy a proposed half mil fire tax and will not do so unless they feel residents are in favor of it. Monday night's turnout was not sufficient to convince the three supervisors in attendanceMontemuro, Warren Reiner and Harry Connollythat the residents were in favor of the tax.
"We're going to put it on the ballot," Connolly said.
Supervisors had hoped to get the issue on the ballot for the last election, but missed a statutory deadline. After last night's poor turnout, it appears that the issue will stay on the table until next year when it will be put on the ballot and left up to voters in the township.
"I get two or three people coming into my shop every week who have lost their jobs or are losing their homes," said Montemuro, who owns Frosty Mountain Beverage on State Route 903. "No one wants another tax right now."
But officials from both township fire companies told residents on Monday that a tax might be the only way emergency services personnel here can keep their operations running.
In a presentation, Holly Rivera, president of Penn Forest VFC No. 1, explained that it costs volunteers $115,000 annually to operate the fire house. In the past, the fire company has made its budget by combining donations from the township with government grants, fundraising dollars and money the state provides through the Fireman's Relief Organization. Since 2007, funds from all of these sources have fallen dramatically. To make matters worse, the equipment in use by the fire company is getting older and the costs to replace it are rising.
Presenters told residents that it costs about $9,000 to fully outfit a worker to fight a fire inside a building. Because the state issues guidelines instead of regulations for the operation of volunteer fire companies, the state is not obligated to provide the equipment, which must then be provided by the fire companies themselves.
"We just have our heads above water now," said Bob Batholemew, Fire Chief for Penn Forest Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1. "This is our 9-1-1 call to the community. Something has to change."
A half mill fire tax would only cost residents who live in a property worth $100,000 about $50 a year. In all, such a tax could bring inasmuch as $189,000 for the fire companies to split. That would be a big improvement from the $40,000 each they are likely to receive this year from the township.
According to an Internet poll currently hosted on the Web site for Fire Company No. 1, the majority of township residents would be in favor of paying a fire tax. According to the Web site, more than 64 percent of respondents said they would support fire company volunteers with a tax. Only about 12 percent said they would not be in favor of a tax because they already donate and another 20 percent said they don't want to be taxed. About 4 percent said they were unsure.
But Montemuro said he wants to be sure that township residents understand what this new fire tax will mean before he moves forward with it.
"We're opening up a can here," he said. "Once this tax is passed, it doesn't go away. It will just go up each year as expenses rise."
That's a decision supervisors seemed content to leave in the hands of the voters for now.