Last summer, an installment of this column posited that we are entering, if not in, a public safety crisis due to the lack of volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers.
From 1990 to 2010, the number of firefighters in New York dropped 24 percent while, over that same period, the number of calls across the state doubled. When you have fewer men and women saving lives and property while more people are in need, tragedies will happen through no fault of those who are ducking out of family dinners and little league games and forgoing sleep to save the day. There’s only so much these Supermen and Superwomen can do; they’re spread thin.
A question has been posed many times by fire chiefs and policymakers: How do we attract – and retain – people to the ranks of volunteerism? Many benefits have been offered in response to that, from paid training to property and income tax credits to tuition assistance. Many more could be and should be offered.
Among the suggestions that have been tossed around the past couple of years is the idea that the state should provide free hunting and fishing licenses to them. Why hunting and fishing licenses? It’s the demographic of the volunteers. While cities have paid departments, it’s the rural towns and villages that rely on unpaid services, and the outdoor pursuits comprise the hobbies and quality of life for most of those small town firefighters, EMTs, and drivers.
The latest iteration of this suggestion comes in a bill introduced by Senator Sue Serino (R- Hyde Park). Bill S6690 would not issue free licenses outright. Instead, it would issue tax credits to the volunteers that are equal to the value of the licenses.
Filing for and receiving tax credits might seem like a lot of red tape, but it’s necessary given the political and policy structure of Albany. There is no means in place by the state to fund the Conservation Fund in the absence of revenues that would have been received from license sales now made free.
There are over 100,000 fire and EMS volunteers in the state. The Conservation fund -- which already lost $8 million between 2013 and 2014 alone -- could potentially and perpetually lose $6 million per year if it were to cover all-in licensing (hunting, fishing, archery tags, and doe and turkey permits). That would adversely affect campgrounds, boat launches, fish stocking and pheasant rearing….the very realms and objects of enjoyment that we were supposed to be given to the public safety volunteers.
In the perfect world, volunteers would receive the licenses for free up front and the state would fully reimburse the Conservation Fund for the full value of all free licenses. But, Albany is an imperfect world, and its power brokers have on many occasions robbed the Conservation Fund for use in the General Fund (yet, somehow, the inverse is impossible).
While tax credits might not be the very best gift for the volunteers, they are the best that we can give them given the state government we have…and it’s, above all, the least we can do for all that they do for us.
So, if you value the peace of mind and safety that your local fire and medical crews bring to you and your family, encourage your senator or assemblyperson to support Sue Serino’s bill and extend a small but meaningful benefit to them.
From the 18 February 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers