Friday, October 5, 2018

Cancer bill is an unfunded mandate for volunteer fire companies

It’s been written here before about the considerable woes facing volunteer fire departments (VFDs) across the Empire State.

With less than one-of-every-five New Yorkers volunteering for anything (be it firefighting, little league, or the local soup kitchen), VFD’s have found it difficult to maintain their ranks. Fire and emergency squads throughout the state have held annual recruitment events in recent years in hope of adding personnel and results haven’t come close to approaching expectations. The continued decline in volunteerism has led to more work on fewer firefighters, lengthy response times, and, because of those issues, the very real potential for expanded disasters that put them and the public at risk.

One thing that often gets overlooked in this mess is the financial impact smaller rosters have on VFDs.

It takes a lot of money to maintain, purchase, and replace equipment. With fewer firefighters and a similar decline in social members, there aren’t enough people to run fundraisers such as raffles and chicken barbeques. Some local fire companies have even been forced to shut down their bingo operations that were mainstays of their communities – the income for the departments was decent but you can’t run bingo without workers.

So, it’s an all-encompassing crisis that is felt at the fire and behind the scenes in the board meetings. Every man and woman matters. Every dollar matters. They don’t have enough of any of them.

Matters only look to get worse on the financial front come January.

And, it comes from the least-expected of causes – a law that was supposed to protect firefighters.

In the 2017 legislative session in Albany both houses passed a bill – the New York state volunteer firefighter gap coverage cancer disability benefits act – that grants extended compensation for firemen who are diagnosed with cancer through the duties of their volunteerism. Anyone who has served as an interior firefighter for 5 years will be eligible. Firefighters afflicted with cancer will be eligible for three benefits: one, a lump sum payment ranging from $6,250 to $25,000; two, a disability payment of $1,500 a month for up to 36 months; and, three, in the event of passing from cancer, the family would receive a one-time payment of $50,000.

It’s a well-deserved series of benefits as these brave souls are subjected to an amalgamation of burning chemicals at any fire, whether it’s in a residence or in a factory. Being a volunteer can be a deadly calling.

The law’s passage was met with great fanfare; that is, until it was found out that fire companies, not the state itself, have to fund the now-mandatory insurance. It was originally thought that Albany would fund the program as it didn’t say otherwise in the language of the Assembly’s and Senate’s bills.

So, it was a surprise afterthought that put the burden on VFDs and their municipalities. Or was it? After all, unfunded mandates are par for the course in state government, best exemplified by local funding of Medicaid.

This shift of funding will pain the already-crippled fire departments. The insurance is not cheap. In Georgia, where a similar measure passed, it cost $300 a head. Some larger fire companies might have 30 interior fighters. Even the smallest, most-rural VFDs in New York might have 10 men and women eligible for coverage. Across that range, VFDs will be looking at added expenses ranging from $3,000 to $9,000 per year.

How do they “find” that amount of money? It will take extra fundraisers and boot drives, impossible tasks if VFDs are already abandoning some income streams because of a lack of personnel. It will also require towns and villages, beleaguered by a state-mandated tax cap, to kick in more dollars.

Time is of the essence to find a solution. There is now less than 3 months to go to budget that money to meet the new cost for 2019 and beyond. It won’t be easy. Firefighters deserve this benefit, but they don’t deserve the stress and struggle of trying to fund it on their own.

If you truly value the service and safety that your local fire company provides, help them – if not in the form of your time or a donation, reach out to state officials and demand that they reconsider this unfunded mandate and put its funding on the state and not on the backs of the very people the cancer bill is supposed to serve.

From the 15 October 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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