Volunteer firefighters and other first responders could receive tax breaks under a bill passed by the state House of Representatives earlier this week.
If approved by the Senate and signed by the governor, the legislation would authorize local governments to provide credits on earned-income and property taxes for volunteers serving as firefighters, emergency medical workers and other first responders.
The House approved the measure 195-0 on Tuesday.
State Rep. John Hornaman, D-Erie County, the bill's main sponsor, said the bill isn't a mandate but is rather an option that county governments and school boards could undertake.
He said tax breaks would help reverse a downward trend in the number of volunteers many Pennsylvanians rely on for prompt assistance in fires and other emergencies.
"We can't afford to see our volunteer system go down the tubes," Hornaman said.
How it would work: If the measure is signed into law, volunteers could receive up 20 percent off their residential real estate property tax bill from school boards and up to 20 percent off real estate property tax bills from county governments.
Volunteers could also get tax credits from municipal governments, according to the bill.
A similar bill proposed by Hornaman a few years ago passed the House by a 195-0 vote, but failed to be approved in the Senate.
The Erie County representative said he's hopeful this year will be different.
However, the Senate has just a couple of scheduled session days to act on the bill before the session comes to a close.
"It's time to stop playing politics with this thing," Hornaman said. "This has to be done within days."
Volunteer fire departments save taxpayers from having to pay for paid firefighters.
All told, volunteers provide $6 billion worth of services statewide, Hornaman said.
"We save the taxpayers a lot of money," said Dover Township Fire Chief Glenn Jansen.
Declining numbers: Local fire officials said the bill would help keep volunteers involved in emergency services.
"I could see this as an incentive for people to join the fire service," said Red Lion Fire Chief Joseph Yahnke.
Over the years, the number of volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania has steadily declined.
In 1970, there were 300,000 volunteer firefighters in the state. That number has slipped to about 70,000 today, Hornaman said.
Dover Township Volunteer Fire Co. has seen firsthand its number of volunteers drop over the years.
Jansen said the department has 19 active firefighters. About 20 years ago, the department had double that.
One of the reasons for the drop is today's busy lifestyle most people live. Another is the number of hours it takes to train a firefighter.
A new recruit most complete 200 hours of training before he or she can enter a burning building, Jansen said.
Some interested in becoming a volunteer can't squeeze that amount of time into their lives, he said.
While the tax breaks could spur on volunteerism, Jansen said it would most likely help persuade volunteers already involved with the fire service to stay involved.
"It would certainly help the folks that are in to stay in," he said.
-- Reach Greg Gross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.