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Guest Column: State Sen. Tom O'Mara
"One incentive at a time"
ALBANY, Aug. 15 -- Are there any better symbols of summer than the hundreds of volunteer firemen’s fairs, festivals, pancake breakfasts and chicken barbecues that dot the upstate New York landscape in August? They take their place among the season’s most anticipated celebrations and highlight the volunteer fire department as a mainstay of community pride, service and protection.
history of the local fire department is traced at least as far back as
Benjamin Franklin’s establishment of the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia
in 1736. In other words, it’s an institution as old as the nation
herself. Today, according to statistics, volunteer fire departments
But always in the background, anytime we consider the future of volunteer emergency services, is this: prominent organizations like the New York State Association of Towns and the Firemen’s Association of New York (FASNY) point out time and again their economic value. For instance, the Association of Towns (www.nytowns.org) issued a report several years ago that pegged the cost to local taxpayers statewide at more than $7 billion annually to replace volunteers with paid fire and ambulance services. According to FASNY (www.fasny.com), the number of volunteer firefighters statewide has dropped from 140,000 in the early 1990s to fewer than 90,000 today. Volunteer emergency medical technicians (EMTs) declined 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.
New York government has its hands more than full for the foreseeable future. We face stubborn economic and fiscal challenges, and we have to realize that the choices we make today are going to have an enormous impact on tomorrow. In my view, our focus must include the long-term ability of local volunteer fire companies and ambulance services to recruit and retain volunteers.
One dominant issue confronting next year’s Legislature will be mandate relief. The closer we get to 2012, the louder will become the calls from local leaders across New York to lift the burden of unfunded state mandates once and for all. And rightly so. This burden isn’t only undeniable, it’s unfair and unreasonable. A state-appointed Mandate Relief Team (explained at www.governor.ny.gov/mandaterelief) remains at work identifying ways to bring about the change that's needed. With that in mind, I’ll offer this suggestion: if you think the local share of Medicaid represents an unmanageable burden for many counties, consider what’s going to happen if the corps of emergency services volunteers continues to shrink. It’s the next property tax crisis in waiting. Can we do more to avert it? We have to at least consider that possibility, and we have to do it now. Not addressing the challenge may not fall under the category of an unfunded mandate, but it would surely constitute an unintended mandate.
There are factors outside of government’s influence that contribute to these declining volunteer ranks. But there are actions that government can and should take to provide incentives that just might help reverse the decline. New York State has initiated valuable tax breaks, tuition assistance, and other incentives, like a new law two years ago to allow volunteers to participate in certain public employee health insurance plans. But can we can do more? That’s the goal behind legislation I’ll continue to sponsor, together with area Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, known as the “Emergency Services Volunteer Incentive Act.” Our act would put in place a mix of tax relief and other incentives aimed at attracting volunteers.
Its purpose is twofold. It keeps attention focused on the overall issue, and it serves as a starting point for an overdue discussion on how to respond. In the meantime, support our local volunteer ranks by stopping at a festival, buying a tasty breakfast or supper, or dropping a couple of bucks in the boot. It all helps -- and it shows your appreciation.
Photo in text: State Senator Tom O'Mara
Schuyler County Officials
Top row (from left): Dennis Fagan, Thomas Gifford, Doris Karius, Glenn Larison
Bottom row: Michael A. Yuhasz, Barbara Halpin, Phil Barnes, Stewart Field
Dennis Fagan, Tyrone 607-292-3687
Michael A. Yuhasz, 535-4967
Doris L. Karius, 546-5544
Barbara Halpin, 594-3683
Glenn R. Larison, 594-3385
Thomas M. Gifford, 535-9517
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: Margaret Starbuck, 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 Christopher Friend --
Chemung, Schuyler, Tioga
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869