Thursday, February 18, 2016

Volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers deserve free sporting licenses

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  


Unknown said...

I think the problem with volunteer firefighters is its volatile economies of scale. Getting people to volunteer involves many factors such as the willingness to get people to sacrifice personal time. Were as a paid professional has to be there to do the job all the time while on the clock. In the last thirty years or so buildings have been design with non flammable materials along with many of the furniture that are inside. This change in building design has caused a dramatic shift in the demand for professional firefighters. Most counties don't need as many professional firefighters in the urban areas as they did back thirty years ago. However, the spillover effect in the rural areas has obviously been quite negative since most of the buildings are a lot more antiquated and flammable. From this situation stems the root cause of the lack of volunteers. Less professional demands more volunteers and the supply side is not responding consistently. Therefore offering an incentive would be an appropriate response. Bill S6690 seems like a step in the right direction. But ponder this, is it better to fight a large fire with a force comprised of 80% pros and 20% volunteers or 20% pros and 80% volunteers?? I hope this all makes sense I know it's a bit wordy.

Anonymous said...

So this is not a gift of any kind or a thank you to many because you still have to pay for it and the "tax credit" you get from it will be nothing. Just a joke on volunteers to say, hey look we offer this but you actually get nothing, typical