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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.

The 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
account for 73% of all of America’s fire departments. Very simply, each one stands as a source of civic pride and community involvement. The men and women who keep these organizations going year after year are literally lifelines of community action and support.

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 ( 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 (, 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 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

Legislature Members:

Top row (from left): Dennis Fagan, Thomas Gifford, Doris Karius, Glenn Larison

Bottom row: Michael A. Yuhasz, Barbara Halpin, Phil Barnes, Stewart Field


Legislature Chairman

Dennis Fagan, Tyrone 607-292-3687

Legislature Members:

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
313 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-3201
DC Phone: 202-224-6542
DC Fax: 202-228-3027
Email Address:

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand

United States Senate
478 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
DC Phone: 202-224-4451

State Senator Tom O'Mara -- Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben, Yates, western Tompkins, Enfield, Ithaca (Town and City), Newfield, Ulysses(Trumansburg)

Room 812, Legislative Office Building
Albany, NY 12247
Phone: (518) 455-2091
Fax: (518) 426-6976

Assemblyman Christopher Friend -- Chemung, Schuyler, Tioga
Room 720, Legislative Office Building
Albany, NY 12248
Phone: (518) 455-4538


© The Odessa File 2011
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869