With all the chicken pot pie dinners and bingo games that fire companies across Pennsylvania run, it might surprise you that there are 59 of them out there – ones in Harrisburg, Lower Allen Township and Susquehanna Township among them – at last check that had access to more than $1 million sitting in their volunteer firefighters’ relief association account.
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on Thursday called attention to the restrictions in a state law passed over 50 years ago and revised only twice that governs the use of the relief association dollars. He urged the General Assembly to update the law to grant more flexibility with how that money could be spent as well as how the money gets distributed among these organizations.
“Simply stated, the law has not kept pace with changing times and in my view, puts too many restrictions on how relief associations spend the state aid they receive,” said DePasquale. His office is charged with auditing each of the approximate 2,000 relief association every three to four years.
Last year, $55.1 million was distributed to 2,518 municipalities to be turned over to those relief associations based on their population and real estate value in proportion to the entire commonwealth.
That funding came from a 2% state tax on fire insurance premiums purchased by state residents from out-of-state casualty insurance company. The relief associations are limited to using the money for the benefit of volunteer firefighters, not paid ones, to buy equipment, training, insurance and pay death benefits.
“As many volunteer relief firefighters’ association officials will likely tell you, the restrictions in the law make it difficult to spend the state aid in ways that meet the needs of local firefighters and their communities,” he said.
Take Harrisburg Fire Department for example. It had nearly $16.3 million in its relief association when it was last audited in 2016. Yet, DePasquale said the mayor and city council struggle to meet the needs of the fire department’s paid firefighters because the relief association funds are limited to be spent on volunteers.
The city’s Fire Chief Brian Enterline called the law governing the association archaic and inflexible.
Given the dwindling number of Pennsylvania’s volunteer firefighters that dropped from 300,000-plus in the 1970s to just over 35,000 this year, he said enabling fire departments to use relief association funds to offer length of service awards to volunteers could help with recruitment and retention.
Further, he said drones are becoming a necessary emergency service component yet that is not a permitted expenditure for relief association funds.
“We’d like to get the Legislature on board to help us to help the communities and really get this money back to where it belongs and that’s protecting our firefighters and our taxpayers,” Enterline said.
Sen. Mike Regan, R-Cumberland/York counties, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, recognizes the problems surrounding the relief associations, which were highlighted in a report issued last year on problems facing the state’s emergency services funds.
Along with seeing the law governing the use of relief funds as an impediment that he wants to address, Regan said he and other lawmakers are seeking answers from the state Department of Revenue as to why the amount of money coming into the relief association program is on the decline.
Additionally, he said, “I will be introducing legislation that will move the administration of fire relief to the fire commissioner’s office. We believe the fire commissioner will be able to provide the proper guidance to fire companies on the use of the funds, which will be looked at as well and will include such allowable as length of service award programs.”
He said his legislation would retain the requirement for the relief funds to be subject to audit by the auditor general’s office.
Updating the law to have more flexibility could improve the results of those audits that often find relief associations struggling to meet the letter of the antiquated law, DePasquale said.
But he added, “The most important thing is making sure the law is updated so our brave firefighters, both professional and volunteer, can do an even better job of protecting our communities across the commonwealth.”