A bill which returns funds intended to support and incentivize the volunteering of critical emergency services has been signed into law by Governor Mark Gordon. It allocates several million dollars to the Volunteer Firefighters Retirement Fund, which also provides retirement benefits to other emergency service volunteers. The pension fund is planned to be disbursed in the coming years.
Sponsored by Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody), House Bill 118 is the brainchild of HR Coe, a longtime firefighter and son of the late state Senator Hank Coe, who served in the legislature from 1989-2020 of Park County. It passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 48-14 on February 8 and the Senate by a vote of 27-2-1-0-1 on February 17.
“We must look after the people who risk their lives every day to help keep our community safe,” Newsome said in a press release. “This law is essential to the safety of our community now and will assist needed recruitment and retention efforts in the future. I am pleased the Legislature has been able to deliver secure funding for this critical effort.”
The bill clarifies how the gross premium tax on fire insurance premiums between emergency volunteer retirement accounts and reserve legislative accounts will be distributed. This includes up to 100 percent of the gross premium tax which will be deposited into the emergency volunteer retirement account. Forty percent of the gross premium tax will be held in the Fire A legislative reserve account.
It also allocated an additional $9 million of funds from the general fund into retirement accounts.
There is debate about how much to place in this account. A House amendment calls for $4.5 million to be allocated for it. The Senate amendments attach to the $9 million figure, which was adopted by a conference committee after failing a 31-31 approval vote in the House on February 21. The bill later passed by a 40-21-1 vote after being scrapped on February 22 before heading to governors.
“We have to look after our volunteers, volunteer firefighters, EMTs, search and rescue,” said Rep. Clarence Styvar (R-Cheyenne). “Volunteering in the state is declining. If we sustain this, hopefully we can get more volunteers.”
There are about 2,300 active volunteer firefighters statewide with about 1,600 retired volunteers receiving benefits. The Volunteer Firefighters Retirement Fund was originally created in 1967 as an account to provide funds for retired firefighters. In 2015, EMTs added to it by merging the Volunteer EMT Retirement Fund with the Volunteer Firefighters Retirement Fund, creating a combined Volunteer Fire and EMT Retirement Fund. Retired regional search and rescue personnel were added in 2019, according to Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne).
Additional payments for overtime were added, as were other benefits when the fund expanded to cover EMTs and search and rescue workers. Around this time, the state took funds from fire insurance premium accounts, which are funds paid by insurance companies to do business in Wyoming. Funds coming in from this fund range from $4.5 million to $5 million to pay benefits. Contributions from 2,300 volunteer firefighters add up to another $1 million. The average monthly payment is around $385 for those with 20 years of experience. Firefighters and EMTs volunteers currently pay $18.50 per month into the fund, which rises to $37.50 per month for search and rescue due to the different pay structure and how benefits are provided, he added.
Fire A accounts see premiums reduced to 60 percent from 100 percent, where they currently stand.
“Once this count reaches 107 percent of funding [per the rules of the account], then dropped to 60 percent,” said Nicholas. “This 60 percent is going to happen one way or another, so the only question is how quickly we get to 107 percent. If we put in $12 million, or $9 million, it’s going to happen a little bit quicker. If we put $4.5 million dollars in, it’s going to happen a bit slower. If we do nothing, it will still happen.”
Volunteer accounts are solvent, being funded at the higher 80 percent rate, according to Rep. Tom Walters (R-Casper).
“Right now, in terms of full funding, as you can see, it will be fully funded in 2029 under the no-bill status quo,” he said. “With this bill, you can bring it down to 2025, so we’re talking about a four year difference. And it’s really part of the compromise that we made last year where everybody in the fire systems said we’re willing to step in and make sure we can stabilize that Fire A system. And now a year later, we come back and say, ‘Well, some people decided they didn’t like their part in the compromise. So they want to change their part of the compromise.”
Newsome stated that it was a good idea to add more funds to the account as there are more available funds in the general fund.
“Last year, [we] decided that we would take $9 million from the volunteer firefighting fund to support Fire A, which is a paid firefighter retirement fund,” Newsome said. “We take money from volunteers [account] and put it into a paid account. That’s a simple explanation of what happened. What I’m asking is that we keep the $9 million we took from the volunteer fund to replace him, and especially that we have a little extra cash at this point.
Gordon signed the bill into law on February 28. This will go into effect July 1.