Exception or credit? County legislators are pondering the question of potential voluntary firefighter benefits

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If Genesee County legislators approve legislation allowing firefighters to opt-in to the tax exemption, that could mean an average annual savings of $134 for each volunteer firefighter, said Deputy Treasurer Kevin Andrews.

However, there are some caveats to the law. Firefighters must choose between taking the current tax credit or the new property tax exemption option. It may be offered in cities, towns, schools, fire districts, and counties, but the tax entity does not have to participate.

Batavia City firefighters and residents of the city cannot take part in the exemption, even if they are volunteers at other fire departments, he said. And if someone rents, that is also disqualified.

To qualify, volunteer firefighters must reside within the firefighting district they serve. They also need at least two to five years of service to participate or can apply for a lifetime exemption with more than 20 years of service. They cannot claim tax credits and exemptions. The higher the property appraisal, the more savings, says Andrews.

Ideally, one would want to stack cities, schools and counties for a maximum 10 percent exemption, he said.

“On average, the district alone is not enough to receive it,” he said.

He estimated that if every volunteer firefighter took advantage of the exemption, it would mean a two-cent increase in the tax rate, and each taxpayer would pay $3.30 more in annual taxes.

“The fees remain the same, but they are transferred to others,” he said.

That didn’t sit well with Legislator Marianne Clattenburg.

“I’m very concerned about this shift in costs because, you know, we’re helping each other. And I will speak for the city’s constituents. Again, we paid a premium for professional firefighting services, which is what we wanted in the city of Batavia. This exemption will be passed on to already burdened city dwellers. So I wonder what this shift is.”

With 585 volunteers saving an average of $134, that’s $78,000 per year, says Andrews.

“So if we’re willing to talk about taking x amount of sales tax money or something similar to plug a hole in the budget to compensate for that, then I’d be fine with that. But I don’t want that to shift to anyone else,” Clattenburg said. .

Legislator Christian Yunker asked if this was a real recruiting tool.

“I think it’s more every day, we look at it as a retention tool. How do you keep people who have been here and doing ministry for years, keep those people involved because every organization has a small group of people working there. And there’s really nothing to incentivize them to stay, so like this, New York State Fire talks about an incentive program for new recruits going into training, if you complete the first base level, you get $1,000. If you go to the next level, it’s $1,000. But they don’t do anything for the people who are already in the system,” said Deputy Emergency Management Services Coordinator Gary Patnode.

He added, “You know, for young firefighters who don’t have their own homes, it’s not going to work in their favor. But for me, as a city taxpayer, it’s certainly interesting. Right now, they didn’t really want to entertain this unless all parties would be involved. They want to go to school districts, fire districts, villages, you know, cities, counties, anyone who can get in, so they get the best bang for their buck. Otherwise, right now, everyone’s better off taking a $200 tax credit.”

He wasn’t sure if school had been part of the conversation, and pointed to the aspect of getting all volunteers involved, no matter their job assignments. Some went to the field to fight the blaze, while others manned headquarters, answered phones and did the books.

“The inactive ones are just as important as the active firefighters,” he said.

Clattenburg wants to see more active volunteers, namely those who come out when the bell rings.

“That’s the problem, there aren’t enough people to get out,” he said.

If the law is passed, it will be adopted in 2024 at the earliest. Volunteers must then register by March 1.

“There are a lot of questions,” said Legislator Gary Maha. “Thank you for the information, there is still a lot of work to be done.”

Firefighters should understand which cities and schools are involved before applying for a tax exemption or credit, says County Manager Matt Landers.

“Right now, Team Yaeger will go to GAM and try to get understanding between towns and villages, get understanding from the fire districts, and maybe school districts as well, to be able to report back to the Legislature: What’s the consensus out there? Is there a will from the government municipalities and local schools to register this exemption?” Landers said, “Because if the county doesn’t have the will from our city government, then from what I’ve heard today, it doesn’t sound like our legislature wants to do it alone, there’s no point in our firefighters just to have the district join this.”

File photo of volunteer firefighters during 2021 training, by Howard Owens.

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