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Guest Column: State Sen. Tom O'Mara
"Taking part, and pitching in"
ALBANY, April 14-- Americans are known for volunteering. In fact we’re coming off a week when the nation observed National Volunteer Week in tribute to all of the many millions of citizens throughout our communities, of every age and from all walks of life, who make such a difference with their willingness to devote time, energy and sacrifice to the lives and needs of others.
It’s a recognition, however, that shouldn’t – and fortunately doesn’t – end after just one week.
The nation’s 41st President, George H.W. Bush, recognized its importance. He’s widely credited with having launched the modern volunteer service movement. In 1990, he signed into law the first piece of federal service legislation in two decades, the National and Community Service Act of 1990. He made public and community service a cornerstone of his presidency when he said in his 1989 “thousand points of light” inaugural address that one cornerstone of his presidency would be devoted to inspiring “duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.”
But we know that fewer and fewer Americans, for a variety of reasons, are taking part and pitching in today. A recent report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, revealed that volunteerism nationwide is at a 10-year low. Make no mistake, there’s still a heck of a lot of volunteering going on across the country – at least 63 million Americans volunteered at least once between September 2012 and September 2013 – but the decline has become evident.
Here in New York State that’s particularly true in one sector of volunteerism: emergency services. According to the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York (FASNY), the number of volunteer firefighters statewide has declined from 140,000 in the early 1990s to fewer than 90,000 today. Volunteer emergency medical technicians (EMTs) experienced a decline from more than 50,000 to 35,000 during the same period, with some rural counties experiencing as much as a 50-percent depletion of their EMT ranks.
It’s why I’m continuing to work with area Assemblymen Phil Palmesano and Chris Friend on legislation we’ve sponsored for several years aimed at helping localities recruit and retain volunteer firefighters and other emergency services personnel. The legislation is known as the “Omnibus Emergency Services Volunteer Incentive Act.” We view it as a complement to the ongoing state-level efforts by FASNY and other groups that keep drawing attention to what many believe is not only a threat to the safety and security of our cities, towns and villages, but also looms as the next property tax crisis in waiting for many rural, upstate communities. FASNY, for example, has estimated that it would cost local taxpayers more than $7 billion annually to replace volunteers with paid fire and ambulance services.
So the reality is straightforward: the alarm has been sounded on the challenge of recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters and other emergency services personnel. We have to keep seeking solutions. This legislation helps us keep the challenge in front of the Legislature. Incentives, while not the be-all and end-all solution, can be an effective piece of a more broad-based response. The volunteer fire department has anchored so many rural, upstate communities for so long that we can’t turn our backs on the crisis.
Our legislation would:
-- provide a $400 state income tax credit for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers who have been active for four or more consecutive years;
-- exempt motor vehicles owned and used in the performance of duty by an emergency services volunteer from motor vehicle registration fees and vehicle use taxes;
-- authorize local volunteer fire and ambulance companies to use state-administered funds, collected annually through a two-percent fire insurance premium tax on out-of-state insurers, to help offset the cost of health insurance for their members; and
-- direct the state Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC) to create a volunteer recruitment service college loan forgiveness program.
It also offers an opportunity to issue a reminder that in a few weeks, at local volunteer fire departments regionally and statewide, one of the year’s most important volunteer recruitment efforts takes place. It’s an annual event sponsored by FASNY called “RecruitNY.” Over the weekend of April 26-27 volunteer fire departments open their doors to the public in an effort to “boost our ranks.”
You can find out more about RecruitNY, including a comprehensive list of participating departments, at www.recruitny.org.
Photo in text: State Senator Tom O'Mara
Schuyler County Officials
Top row (from left): Dennis Fagan, Jim Howell, Michael Lausell, Van Harp
Bottom row: Tom Gifford, Barbara Halpin, Phil Barnes, Stewart Field.
Dennis Fagan, Tyrone 607-292-3687
Thomas M. Gifford, 535-9517
Barbara Halpin, 594-3683
Phil Barnes, Watkins Glen, 481-0482
Stewart Field, Watkins Glen, 535-2335
County Clerk: Linda Compton, 535-8133
Sheriff: William Yessman, 535-8222
Undersheriff: Breck Spaulding, 535-8222
County Treasurer: Gary Whyman, 535-8181
District Attorney: Joseph Fazzary, 535-8383
State, Federal Officials for Schuyler County
Sen. Charles E. Schumer
United States Senate
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand
United States Senate
State Senator Tom O'Mara -- Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Yates, western Tompkins, Enfield, Ithaca (Town and City), Newfield, Ulysses(Trumansburg)
Room 812, Legislative Office Building
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano--
Steuben, Schuyler, Yates
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869