Lawmakers pass bill to increase firefighter loan assistance
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By MARTHA RAFFAELE
Associated Press Writer
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - More than a year after voters authorized
the Legislature to borrow up to $100 million to assist volunteer
fire and ambulance companies, lawmakers have passed a measure that
would tap half that amount to expand a low-interest loan program
that finances equipment purchases.
The state House of Representatives on Tuesday unanimously passed
a bill to increase the bond debt level of the Volunteer Loan
Assistance Program, which provides loans at a fixed interest rate
of 2 percent, from $50 million to $100 million.
The program was established in 1976 and currently has a balance
of $2.3 million, but there are 102 pending applications for loans
totaling $10 million, said Rep. Paul Semmel, who sponsored the
legislation.
"Today, the unfortunate thing is these volunteer organizations
have to spend a lot of time doing fund-raising to meet the needs of
their capital expenditures for new equipment," said Semmel,
R-Lehigh. "We're trying to make sure they don't have to spend so
much time doing that."
The bill now goes to Gov. Ed Rendell, who plans to sign it,
according to his spokeswoman, Kate Philips.
In July, the governor signed legislation authorizing a one-time
$25 million grant program for purposes such as buying equipment,
building or renovating facilities, and reducing debt.
The expansion of the loan program was made possible through a
referendum on the bond issue in 2002 that was approved by a nearly
three-fourths majority of the state's voters.
"The referendum was a requirement for the future sale of
bonds," said John Comey, executive assistant to the Pennsylvania
Emergency Management Agency's director, David M. Sanko.
Pennsylvania has about 2,400 fire companies, and most them are
volunteer organizations, according to Thomas L. Savage III,
executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services
Institute.
Funding has become an increasing concern because, while some
communities provide money for volunteer companies through special
taxes or fees, small, rural towns typically do not.
"The loan fund as it exists today is being depleted because the
cost of equipment is higher. Trucks are much more expensive,"
Savage said.
More work still needs to be done, however, to ensure that
volunteer companies can survive in the long run, Savage said. A
newly appointed bipartisan legislative committee is studying ways
to improve the delivery of fire and emergency services, and he said
he hopes the panel will suggest long-term solutions.
"Many municipalities cannot afford the increasing cost of
emergency services, and in today's world you don't find as many
people who are willing to volunteer - they have too many things on
their plate," Savage said.
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On the Net:
Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency:
http://www.pema.state.pa.us
Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute:
http://www.pfsi.org

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)