Albany, NY - As local ambulance and fire departments struggle to recruit and retain volunteers in the face of rising housing costs and a stagnant economy, the New York State Legislature passed a bill last week that would authorize local governments to grant a 10% property tax deduction to emergency volunteers. Homeowners must have at least five years' experience as a volunteer to be eligible for the tax break.
In the Assembly, where the measure was introduced by Assemblyman Steve Levy (D-Sayville), the bill passed overwhelmingly by a 142-1 margin. An assemblyman from upstate New York, Jacob Gunther (D-Sullivan), cast the lone dissenting vote.
Kate Abdoo, Gunther's legislative director, said the assemblyman voted against the bill because it did not permit a tax deduction for renters. Gunther wanted a "more equitable tax break," Abdoo said. But Levy countered that a measure still could be proposed in the Assembly to allow tax breaks for renters who are emergency volunteers.
Gunther also was concerned that the tax break would be a financial strain on local governments, Abdoo said. "Once something goes off the tax rolls, local municipalities have to make up for it," she said.
But Levy said the bill would "create incentives for volunteers to get involved and stay involved so we don't have to go to a paid fire department or ambulance service." Paid emergency services "would cost taxpayers a fortune," Levy said.
The assemblyman noted that although he allocated $200,000 as a county legislator a few years ago to finance an ad campaign for emergency volunteer recruitment, fire and ambulance departments are still struggling to recruit and retain volunteers.
Exorbitant housing prices have "chased away many young people who are potential new blood for fire and ambulance departments," Levy said. "When the economy goes bad, there is pressure on emergency volunteers to get other jobs," he added. The recently-passed bill is "one of the clearest ways to enhance our ranks," he said.
Governor Pataki is expected to sign the bill, Levy said.
Senator Caesar Trunzo (R-Hauppauge) introduced the bill in the Senate.
"Especially after September 11, the whole world saw the need to have well-trained fire and ambulance volunteers," said Mark Antonucci, communications director for Trunzo. Antonucci said Trunzo's office had also received many calls from local volunteer fire and ambulance departments that were having difficulty recruiting volunteers.
"This is a great way to give a partial tax break to people who put their lives on the line," Antonucci said.
County and local governments would have to pass their own legislation to actually enact the tax break, although Levy noted that the county Legislature passed a sense resolution last year indicating that it would support a property tax break for emergency volunteers.
Cecilia Clausing, spokesperson for County Executive Bob Gaffney, said Gaffney would "give [such a measure] every consideration. The county executive values our fire and emergency service people." A public hearing would most likely need to be held before the Legislature could pass a bill to implement a property tax break, Clausing said.
David Fischler, commissioner of the Suffolk County Fire Rescue and Emergency Services Department, said a property tax break would be a boon to local emergency volunteers.
"This is another component to give people an incentive to volunteer and to maintain the volunteers that we have," Fischler said. "With all the pressures on people for their time, this is one way to recognize the time that fire and EMS volunteers give to their communities."