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Lebanon County fire companies pay thousands in taxes

Written by Daniel Walmer, Lebanon Daily News | Mar 21, 2016 10:00 PM

Seventeen properties owned by fire companies are on county's tax roles

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(Lebanon) -- Lickdale Community and Jonestown Perseverance fire companies were recently rebuffed in an attempt to get property tax relief from Northern Lebanon School District, but they aren't the only Lebanon County fire companies giving money back to local government.

There are about 17 structures owned by fire companies on the Lebanon County tax rolls, and the single-family dwelling on Route 72 is the only one to have requested and received exonerations from county taxes, according to the Lebanon County Tax Assessment Office.

Jonestown Perseverance's property tax bill just for one of its taxable properties - storage units located on Route 22 - went from $4,200 to $11,800 after the 2012 county reassessment, fire chief Robert Taylor said. The annual payment represents enough money to otherwise buy full sets of gear for four firefighters or another thermal imaging camera.

"That's basically a thousand dollars a month they that they take away from us - and they don't take it away from us, they take it away from the community," Taylor said.

Fire landlords

All fire stations and their social halls "maintained by public or private charity" are exempted by state law from real estate taxes, according to a taxation manual published by the Governor's Center for Local Government Services.

Yet eight Lebanon County fire companies own 17 other buildings - single family dwellings and apartments, office buildings, storage facilities, and even a dance studio.

They hold on to the properties for a variety of reasons. Some are used for storage. Citizens Fire Company in Palmyra owned two homes because they were considering building a new fire station where they stand, fire chief Dave Dugan said.

Now that Citizens is instead building its new facility in the municipal complex at Walnut and Railroad streets, one of the homes has been sold and the other is on the market, Dugan said.

Some of the properties, including Perseverance's storage units, are money makers. Rescue Hose Company makes a profit on its 11-car garage at 421 N. Third St. in Lebanon, even after taxes, fire commissioner Duane Troutman said.

Dugan and Troutman said they never considered asking for a tax exemption or exoneration for the extra properties.

Legality of tax break

Lickdale had received tax exonerations from Northern Lebanon School Board for many years before 2016, but district solicitor Howard Kelin told the board on March 8 that it could not single out any individual taxpayer, including fire companies, to not pay taxes. Both Seaman and Donald Konkle, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, have since declined to speculate on the correctness of Kelin's position.

However, Konkle said there are reasons for prohibiting non-profits from receiving tax breaks on secondary properties, particularly if they are using them to make money. In the case of storage units that are rented to other customers, giving the fire company a tax break might be considered an unfair advantage over other storage unit owners that do pay taxes.

Still, fire companies can ask for direct financial support from local government agencies, Konkle said. While it is more common for municipalities to provide funding, schools often have a large demand for fire service, and some fire departments have even begun charging schools for responding to calls.

The Northern Lebanon School Board voted down a $25,000 donation for the eight fire companies located and operating in the district on March 8 by a 6-3 vote, citing the district's tight budget and uncertain state funding.

A fire company could also ask the county tax assessment office for their secondary buildings to receive an exemption that would make them immune from local taxes. While the Lebanon County Board of Assessment, which consists of the county commissioners, makes the ultimate decision, such votes are usually "pretty black and white" based on legal advice from a solicitor, said Chief County Assessor Daniel Seaman.

Lickdale Fire Chief Paul Snyder said the company is still evaluating its options for eliminating tax payments on its properties.

"This is not a done deal yet," he said.

Here's a map of taxable structures owned by Lebanon County fire companies:

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between Lebanon Daily News and WITF. 

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