March 01, 2023 —
The decline in volunteerism across the US and in the North Country
Volunteering has declined nationwide, down 7% from 2019 to 2021. That’s hitting voluntary fire departments hard in places like North Country. Rural firefighters have struggled for years to recruit the next generation of firefighters.
Thomas Miller joined the Massena Volunteer Fire Department when he was 21 years old. At that time, it was a coveted position. There are only 63 places, and lots of interested volunteers.
“When I first came in, there was actually a waiting list,” says Miller.
But that was more than three decades ago. Miller is in his fifties now. He is the first assistant head of the fire department. Currently, he said, volunteers are hard to find.
“In the last 10 or 12 years, volunteerism across the country has declined, and it’s decreased here in Massena as well,” Miller said.
Now, they are short on about a dozen firefighters.
“We like 50 active members. And that’s a scary thought,” he said.
Miller is concerned about not having enough firefighters to respond to an emergency, and he says fifty of them Do have to work harder and more often.
It’s not easy to become, and remain, a firefighter. In New York, basic training takes 140 hours over 2 years. To remain a firefighter in Massena, members must respond to 20% of fire calls. There is also further in-house training, and meetings. And most of their volunteers have full-time jobs.
“We have to work very hard to recruit and retain the members that we have,” said Miller.
Tax allowance for volunteers
That’s where the new state property tax law comes in.
Governor Hochul signed the Real Property Tax Act 466-a in January. This allows local governments to grant property tax exemptions of up to 10% on the primary residence of volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers, as long as they reside in the jurisdiction in which they serve. Miller gives an example: “If your house was valued at $100,000, your house would now be valued at $90,000 because of the 10%. And that’s what your taxes will be taxed to.”
Volunteers must have served at least two years to qualify, and volunteers who have served more than 20 years can receive lifetime benefits. Miller says savings can be used “as a tool to help recruit and retain people.”
The Massena Village Council has approved the exemption, while the City Council is currently considering it. The Massena Central School Board will meet in mid-March to vote on a 10% cut on the school tax bill for volunteer firefighters or ambulance workers who live within school district boundaries.
Miller said all the entities he spoke to were supportive. “I really see a tendency for everyone to recognize the lack of volunteers and the need for volunteers to continue so we can serve this community in times of need.”
The tax break doesn’t mean big savings, but Miller says it’s a way of saying thank you to the volunteers who have done so much for the community. “I think it’s a good start, and something is better than nothing.”
Turning on the tide about the importance of voluntary emergency services
Miller hopes to see more initiatives and support for New York’s volunteer emergency services in the months and years to come, and he probably will.
There has been a renewed spotlight on the role of volunteer firefighters and EMTs in recent years, as volunteerism has declined dramatically during the pandemic, after years of consistent declines nationwide.
Miller says there seems to be a renewed awareness of how critical volunteers are. “Voluntary firefighters and EMS save billions and billions of dollars for taxpayers and I think the state has recognized that, and all the local municipalities.”
The state recently changed the rules so that voluntary ambulances can charge insurance companies for calls; The NY Department of Civil Services has decided to allow volunteer firefighters and EMTs to participate in the NY health insurance program.
Some state lawmakers are pushing for more incentives and support for volunteers, such as a statewide training system, and access to the pension system. It can be included in the upcoming state budget.
Miller said they would all be accepted. “Any little program they can do for volunteers is a win,” says Miller, because everyone wants firefighters to show up when their house catches fire.