Key Senate Committee Approves Winner's Legislation to Encourage Volunteers

George Winner

February 11, 2010

Albany, N.Y., February 10—The Senate Investigations Committee has approved legislation sponsored by State Senator George Winner (R-C-I, Elmira) to help localities avoid potentially enormous future local property tax increases by offering incentives to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters and other emergency services personnel.

Winner is pushing the legislation, known as the “Emergency Services Volunteer Incentive Act,” as part of ongoing state-level efforts to address the issue of high property taxes.  It’s sponsored in the Assembly by area Assemblyman Tom O’Mara (R,I,C-Big Flats). 

"This issue warns of the next explosive property tax crisis facing localities across upstate New York.  It would cost billions of dollars for local property taxpayers to pay for the critical services currently provided by volunteer firefighters and EMTs,” said Winner. “There are no easy answers, but there are some additional incentives that New York government can provide to begin reversing the decline.  We can’t sit back and risk losing the volunteer fire company as a mainstay of so many communities.” 

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The Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY) has estimated that it would cost local taxpayers more than $5 billion annually to replace volunteers with paid fire and ambulance services.  According to FASNY, the number of volunteer firefighters statewide has declined from 140,000 in the early 1990s to fewer than 90,000 today.  Volunteer emergency medical technicians (EMTs) experienced a decline from more than 50,000 to 35,000 during the same period, with some rural counties experiencing as much as a 50-percent depletion of their EMT ranks.

The Winner-O’Mara legislation (S.3983/A.7678) would:
-- provide a $400 state income tax credit for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers who have been active for four or more consecutive years;

-- exempt motor vehicles owned and used in the performance of duty by an emergency services volunteer from motor vehicle registration fees and vehicle use taxes;

-- authorize local volunteer fire and ambulance companies to use state-administered funds, collected annually through a two-percent fire insurance premium tax on out-of-state insurers, to help offset the cost of health insurance for their members;

-- increase the number of qualified candidates, from one to three, that volunteer companies can submit for participation in New York’s “Volunteer Recruitment Service Scholarships” program, a college tuition assistance program for volunteers created by state lawmakers in 2002; and

-- direct the state Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC) to create a volunteer recruitment service college loan forgiveness program.

The measure now goes to the Senate Finance Committee and, if given the okay there, will go before the full Senate for a final vote.