The Northampton Borough Council approved implementing a borough-wide fire tax in a 7-1 vote during their October 6 workshop meeting. The one-mill tax will go into effect in 2023 and is estimated to raise about $200,000 per year for the fire department’s capital reserve.
This funding, explained Borough Manager LeRoy Brobst, can only be used toward major equipment purchases, like fire engines, or capital purchases, like a new building. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania requires that the funding be kept in a separate account. Meanwhile, the borough manager and treasurer will track all spending. Borough council would still have to approve any purchase via an agenda item.
“People have a misconception that [the funding] is easy to tap into [and] easy to use,” said Councilman Anthony Lopsonzski, Sr., who voted in favor of the tax. “There are many people overseeing it.”
Fire Chief Keith Knoblach was in attendance during the meeting. He said this tax would help the fire department achieve its apparatus replacement plan. By law, fire vehicles must be replaced after 20 years. Several in Northampton’s fleet are nearing this timeline. A new fire truck costs at least $900,000 and takes two years to build. This tax would allow the department to pay off vehicles quicker and avoid loans of 15 years or more.
Mark Laub, president of the fire department, is also a driver of these vehicles.
“As a driver, I would like to know that I have an apparatus that is going to work with me, that is going to get us there,” he said. “It will benefit the borough, our residents, and us as a department.”
The fire department will still have a maintenance budget for vehicle repairs and will continue to apply for grants through the county and state. Laub is a volunteer grant writer for the department and has helped it secure numerous grants, including two that were announced during the meeting: one for $100,000 for a vehicle excuse system in the fire station and another for $101,000 for new bay doors.
Councilman Anthony Lopsonzski, Jr. was the only member of council to vote against the tax.
“My issue is the principle,” he said. “The optics could not be any worse. Inflation is up…and we’re talking about implementing a new tax.”
He voiced concern for the 28 percent of borough residents on a fixed income and worried that this tax would set a precedent for other borough departments to request tax increases.
“Once [a tax] is in place, it is in place,” he said, adding that the tax will only go up over the years, not down.
Mayor Tony Pristash agreed.
“As mayor, my number one concern is public safety, and I have always supported the fire department,” he said. “[But] the optics with the struggles of so many people in this town don’t look right. Why now?”
He called the tax a “nice to have” tax, adding that the borough has never denied the department funding.
“The fire company has always received what they wanted and deserved,” he said, “and I do not see that changing…Council will never say no. We made it happen [and] we will make it happen again, [but] the people in this town need a break. If you have the $50, donate; but let people make the decision on their own.”
Councilman Ronald Glassic voted in favor of the tax, saying it is a sign of growth for the borough and will improve the fire department’s chance at securing better loans.
Councilwoman Bonnie Almond also voted in favor of the tax. She said this funding would help ensure that the fire department remains in the borough, even if the county regionalizes its fire services.
“If my house is on fire, I appreciate that you are in my backyard,” she said.
Councilwoman Judy Kutzler has advocated for the fire department throughout her time on council and also voted in favor of the tax.
“Other municipalities have this,” she said. “We are slow in getting to it.”
Despite speaking out against the tax, following the vote, Mayor Pristash told the department he knows they will be “great stewards” of the tax money.
A formal ordinance will be prepared for the next borough council meeting, which will be Wednesday, October 19, at 7 p.m. due to the Annual Jack Frost Parade taking place Thursday, October 20 at 7 p.m.