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Ballot question aims to aid municipal fire departments

Pending voter approval May 18, municipal fire departments could have access to millions of surplus dollars in low-interest loans from a state loan program, Altoona Fire Department Chief Tim Hileman said.

Ballot question No. 4 on the May 18 referendum queries voters about granting municipal fire departments, such as Altoona’s, access to the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program, which provides low-interest loans to volunteer fire departments for purchasing expensive equipment, such as fire trucks.

If approved, Hileman said the change would still need to go before state legislators later this year, but the initiative has bi-partisan support.

“Across the board, and across the state, everyone is in agreement on this one,” he said.

VLAP was created in 1976 to provide loans at a 2% fixed-interest rate for volunteer fire, ambulance and rescue companies to improve their equipment, vehicles and facilities, according to the Pennsylvania Office of the State Fire Commissioner.

Since its inception, about $489 million has been loaned to volunteer agencies throughout the state.

Jerry Brant, Patton Volunteer Fire Company’s assistant fire chief, said the fund was successful enough to become self-sufficient and currently operates with a $47 million surplus.

“This referendum question does not cost the taxpayers a dime,” Brant said. “It simply allows career departments access to the same funding sources the volunteer departments have.”

When VLAP was created, Brant said few revenue sources were available to volunteer agencies, driving the need for the fund. Now, however, municipal departments are seeing funding sources dwindle, despite an increase in mutual aid agreements, which increases the territory they are required to cover, he said.

“We’re a highly mobile society,” Brant said. “Many people live in one community and work in another. And whether they know it or not, with the mutual aid agreements, many share the same pool of emergency resources. It’s no longer an issue of ‘not my community, not my problem.'”

In addition to support from firefighter organizations throughout Pennsylvania, changing the loan program’s access was one of the 2018 Senate Resolution No. 6 suggestions for improvements to Pennsylvania’s current emergency responder funding crisis.

“We expect more budget deficiencies every year, but the price of our equipment continues to rise,” Hileman said. “This is not going to fix budgeting issues for every career department in the state, but it will provide us one more tool to keep our firefighters in the safest equipment available.”

While support for the ballot question is strong among career departments and political circles, Brant said misinformation has created some opposition.

Namely, some volunteer departments worry granting municipal departments access to the loan fund will allow them to soak up all the loans, leaving nothing for the organizations the program was created to benefit.

Brant, a volunteer firefighter with 50 years of experience under his hat, said there is plenty of money to go around. Currently, more than 2,000 volunteer agencies have access to the loan program.

If the ballot question is approved, and the state legislature follows through with changes to the program’s access, Brant said it would only add 22 fire departments to the pool of potential applicants.

With the average fire apparatus costing about $550,000, Brant said a $47 million surplus could mean about one new apparatus a year for each of the added departments — if they applied every year.

The money provided by VLAP is not a grant, Brant said; it’s a loan and must be paid back, which helps keep the program afloat.

Pat Miller, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 299, said access to the low interest loans not only helps fire departments acquire safe, reliable equipment, but in doing so, it could ensure more firefighters keep their jobs as budgets continue to shrink.

“VLAP really is a very good program,” Miller said. “But any program supporting first responders with access to funds like this should be all inclusive.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ike Fredregill is at 814-946-7458.

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