BEGIN WITH VOLUNTEERS in general. You want to help people (or animals or the land, air, water). Chances are you can find a group to join or find someone who can help you help. But if you’re asked by a neighbor to put your life or health at risk most of us would want to think it over a while if they don’t flatly turn you down.
And then there are the firefighters. Talk about volunteering, what they earn is respect from their community, personal satisfaction too and maybe a moment’s pride at the rescue of colleagues or strangers alike, or a home—and all the while expecting casualties and preparing to finish the job.
But it has become more and more difficult to recruit new volunteer firefighters and retain the ones now serving us. That’s no news-flash here. The average age of this county’s population is among the oldest in the state by median age; it seems likely that some residents who might want to join aren’t fit enough to offer much help where it’s needed most. And keep in mind that all 32 fire departments in the county are made up entirely of volunteers.
So it’s no surprise that firefighters and their allies at all levels of government look for incentives that might convince young and middle-aged people to stay in the county or consider relocating here. The more people we have here the larger the pool of potential applicants. At least we can hope it will be.
The latest recruitment benefit program was one just signed by Governor Kathy Hochul a few weeks ago. It authorizes municipalities to offer a 10% reduction in the property tax to volunteer firefighters who have served as a volunteer at least two years. Other requirements apply to the home of the firefighter receiving the benefit, which must be a firefighter’s primary residence.
This tax break, available to town volunteer ambulance workers as well as volunteer firefighters, was adopted by the Ancram Town Board last month.
But Ancram Fire Chief David Boice, said in a story by Diane Valden in the February 23 issue of The Columbia Paper that fewer than a third of Ancram firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers would qualify. (“In Ancram, some firefighters get a break,” Page 1.)
Why so few? As Ancram Town Supervisor Art Bassin pointed out this week, the youngest firefighters don’t yet own a home, so no tax break for them. And the tax break only applies to town property taxes. And then there are odd restrictions like the one for a married couple who are both firefighters and who share a home. Each one should get the tax reduction, right? Not the way the state sees it.
The approval process for Ancram’s 10% tax break law is not over on this newly revised benefit. School districts and the county Board of Supervisors would be affected by dips in Ancram property values, which is why school boards and the county will also vote on Ancram’s tax break law.
There are also references in the new law to address the “Surviving, Un-Remarried Spousal Exemption….” which can sound needlessly complex until you read the following phrase, “…. for Members Killed in the Line of Duty.”
The job of volunteer firefighter is deadly serious. It will be a long time before anyone can say whether the 10% property tax reduction offer was more than a nice idea.
Not long ago the ash from wildfires in California drifted over our skies. Maybe it’s time to revalue what a volunteer firefighter is worth. The place to start is with the state.