“Wracking our Brains” to Find a Firefighter
Essay, Posted May 15, 2022
This Councilperson, Robert Lynch, as I addressed the Tompkins County Legislature April 5th on a new Enfield initiative:
“We have a problem in Enfield with too few people volunteering for the Enfield Volunteer Fire Company and its Rescue Squad. And we’re trying to solve that problem.
“Last December first, Governor Hochul signed a law that permitted Monroe County to provide a ten per cent (10%) real estate tax exemption to volunteer firefighter or emergency workers who have been part of a volunteer organization within that county, Monroe County, for at least two years. And as far as I know, Tompkins County doesn’t have a similar law on the books…. I won’t get into the details, but there is some brake on that system for that exemption. But it’s a good exemption, and we’d like to have it here….
“If sought by your Legislature and approved by the State, the exemption would not just benefit Enfield, but every volunteer fire company in Tompkins County, whether it be Dryden or Groton or Danby or Trumansburg; wherever.
“I know these initiatives, because you’re cutting the assessment for some, might raise the taxes a trifle for others. But I think that’s a small price to pay—a small price to pay—for the benefits that you derive by having a better, well-staffed volunteer fire service in this community. And face it, it would cost a lot more if we, the rural communities, had to fund with our tax dollars, a paid fire department, or we had to contract with the City of Ithaca for fire services….”
Credit my sister, Marcia Lynch, a former Volunteer Coordinator for the Ithaca Fire Department and a one-time contract instructor at the National Fire Academy, for prompting my curiosity. She pointed me in mid-March to a story in the Finger Lakes Times that reported on Seneca County’s efforts to secure a similar exemption for its own volunteers. The Seneca County Board of Supervisors quickly and unanimously approved the initiative April 12 and sent it on to the State. I spoke briefly to the Seneca County Board that night and expressed Enfield’s interest. Board members, in turn, encouraged me, Enfield, and Tompkins County to pursue the exemption as well. Why, the Supervisors asked, would anyone oppose it?
The next night, our Enfield Town Board adopted its own call to make the measure law. On this matter, we all agreed, and I’m glad we did. We, the five colleagues who serve you in this town, recognize how important a well-staffed EVFC is to our community and what it means to you.
I’ve since taken our resolution to two county legislative committees, most importantly to the Government Operations Committee meeting on May 5th. Legislative deliberations take time. Lawmakers want to get the measure right. But I sensed committee support. Given that the New York State Legislature will likely adjourn in early-June, and that I’ve heard of no plans for a Special Session, expect no Albany approval until next year. Be patient.
The Ithaca Voice has picked up on this story. https://ithacavoice.com/2022/05/amid-volunteer-crisis-enfield-pushing-for-a-tax-exemption-to-attract-emergency-responders/
The Voice reporter Jimmy Jordan asked me some questions about it. Jordan later reported:
“Lynch said that he didn’t know if the property tax exemption is the best way to retain and incentivize volunteers to join Enfield’s EMS and fire services, ‘but it’s one way, and it’s a way that other communities and other counties have proposed and some have granted, and it’s worth a try.’”
And for this next moment, I’ll step aside and let reporter Jordan describe how the Government Operations Committee greeted our Enfield initiative May 5th:
The crisis of the volunteer shortage was recognized by many of the Legislators attending the committee meeting, including Legislators Lee Shurtleff (R-District 9), Travis Brooks (D-District 1), and Dan Klein (D-District 7).
“We have a real crisis here, which is the rural communities are losing ambulance service and fire service. It’s a fact. It’s widespread. I feel like we need to address it,” said Klein.
He added that he was in favor of the approach, but raised the issue that the exemption might not be “equitable,” since it only applies to and incentivizes property owners, but that this shouldn’t be a distraction from getting something done to address the problem.
“I am in favor of this approach. It doesn’t resolve everything. I don’t know if it’s completely equitable, and there’s a lot of things it maybe doesn’t do, but it does something,” said Klein.
But committee discussions that day also raised whether equity demands New York expand its volunteer firefighter income tax credit, rather than a benefit restricted to property tax. To that idea, Director of Assessment Jay Franklin had a warning. Franklin cautioned that any expanded income tax break, as opposed to that for property assessments, would likely apply statewide. Albany probably couldn’t particularize them to a single county. One can easily foresee how the higher total cost of a statewide income tax cut would lessen the prospects for adoption.
But legislative mechanics aside, what we each should focus attention on is community need—the essential requirement for a robust, ready-at-the-moment Fire and EMS service; paralleled with the equal necessity to keep volunteer services truly volunteer so as not to break a local municipal budget, including Enfield’s.
“We’re wracking our brain in Enfield as to how to solve the problem,” I told the County Legislature April 5th. And I more than welcomed my presumed three-minute Councilperson’s report expanding into a nearly 20-minute back-and-forth where legislators and I took a deep-dive into the recruitment plight facing emergency services.
“I agree with you completely, that the towns and villages are heading toward real crisis in their EMT service and in their firefighters,” said Public Safety Committee Chair Rich John. “We should be thinking about doing something….”
Admittedly, Rich John stood hesitant over the suggested remedy. Granting property assessment exemptions alone, he warned, could leave volunteer firefighters who rent their abodes gaining nothing.
I looked at the problem differently, and from my Enfield perspective.
“I think in Enfield, a lot of people are home owners to a certain extent, as opposed to renters,” I said. And the exemption “may provide just a little more of a benefit when finances get tight, for people to say maybe this is a reason to volunteer.”
The Monroe County law that we in Enfield propose Tompkins County mimic would provide the ten per cent assessment exemption only to owner-occupied residential properties and only to Fire and EMS volunteers living within the community in whose district they serve. It would extend benefits to retired volunteers.
At the April meeting, Dryden Legislator Mike Lane commended us in Enfield for advancing our idea. And we do not stand alone. Lane said he’s discussed a similar benefit with his home town leaders at the Neptune Hose Company.
“This means a lot trying to figure out how to get more people involved in volunteer services,” Lane told our meeting. Of fire company volunteers, he said, “They’re wonderful servants for our communities. They are beloved in our communities. And we hope that this or some other method like this will help add numbers of people to these rosters.”
Beloved they are; but dwindling too. Groton legislator Lee Shurtleff, former President of the State Fire Chief’s Association and County Government’s retired Director of Emergency Response, shared figures showing that volunteer firefighting manpower countywide once stood as high as 1800, but has since dropped to nearly a third of that. Shurtleff has taken up our cause.
The solution is “a piece of many things, and I would hope we would look at the full gamut,” Shurtleff told legislative colleagues in April. And because the Enfield-preferred “Monroe County model” would permit benefits extended to reduce School Taxes “It’s the first property tax exemption that I’ve seen that has a potential to be of value to volunteers,” Shurtleff added.
Wednesday, May 11th, I gave our Enfield Town Board a status report. “I suspect the Government Operations Committee, which meets once monthly, may need several more meetings to finalize any resolution to convey to the County Legislature, and then the State,” I said. “Apparently they—and we—have ample time to get this right. Delayed legislation is better than no legislation at all.”
Mind you, I remain grounded. This lone assessment exemption provides no miracle cure to volunteer recruitment’s ills. It stands merely as one partial, potential solution among many. It’s “one tool in our tool box,” I told someone.
Or as Jimmy Jordan quoted me in The Ithaca Voice, “I think the gain outweighs any pain.”
Yes, I’d like to give it a try.