ITHACA, N.Y. – The City of Ithaca depended on volunteer firefighters in its early years, and its city charter was written accordingly. In lieu of salaries and formal benefits, two relief funds for active and retired firefighters were originally set up to pay for expenses like medical costs and funeral services. With the city now relying primarily on professional firefighters, however, Common Council voted Wednesday to eliminate the century-old relief funds and to redistribute future revenue earmarked for the benefit of active firefighters among professionals and volunteers.
Across New York, fire departments receive benefit funds from a 1.8 percent tax on out-of-state fire insurance policies. These so-called two percent monies are meant for “the benefit of, as determined by the members thereof” the fire companies receiving the funds, according to state law. Departments with multiple companies, including career and volunteer firefighters, are required to split two percent funds among them on a pro rata, proportionate basis.
The Ithaca Fire Department is comprised primarily of professional firefighters, with the Ithaca Professional Fire Fighters Association representing about 65 members. However, the department also includes a volunteer company, Company 9, which maintains a membership of about 10 volunteers.
As IFD changed from a volunteer department to a predominantly professional one over the years, the city charter section allocating benefit funds stayed the same. Volunteers reaped the majority of two percent funds distributed through the city’s firemen’s relief funds. According to Chief Tom Parsons, Company 9 and the Veteran Volunteer Firemen’s Association – a social organization for retired volunteer firefighters – have gotten about 75 percent of two percent funds in recent years, while the larger IPFFA has gotten about 25 percent.
That distribution is not in line with current New York state law. Ithaca’s city charter section establishing firemen’s relief funds pre-dated relevant New York law and was grandfathered in, allowing the city to continue giving a majority of two percent funds to volunteer firefighters even as their number dwindled.
Parsons told Common Council in December that the distribution specified in the city charter was outdated and unfair.
“It was written when Ithaca was recognized as a volunteer department,” Parsons said. “In fairness, the money should go to the people who are providing the service,” he said, whether they are career or volunteer firefighters.
Common Council had limited options when it came to changing the distribution of funds. When they first discussed the issue in December, City Attorney Ari Levine explained they faced two choices: they could leave the city charter unchanged, or they could bring Ithaca into compliance with current state law.
Given those options, council members said they supported repealing the charter and redistributing funds proportionally between the IPFFA and Company 9. The Active Firemen’s Relief Fund has accumulated a balance of about $90,000, while the Veteran Volunteer Firemen’s Relief Fund holds about $9,000. A vote to repeal the charter would allocate the balance of the Active Fireman’s Relief Fund, as well as future two percent fund revenue, to the IPFFA and Company 9 on a pro rata basis. A one-time transfer would give the $9,000 balance of the Veteran Volunteer Firemen’s Relief Fund to the Veteran Volunteer Firemen’s Association.
Council agreed to table the matter at December’s meeting to allow more time for discussion, in light of objections from members of Company 9 and the Vets. They voted as expected Wednesday, however, and repealed the charter section despite a final plea from Company 9.
Bill Gilligan, of Company 9, asked council to delay the charter change until next year’s funding cycle.
“I would urge you not to make a rash decision that is irreversible,” Gilligan said during public comment. Gilligan said decreased two percent fund revenue would make it harder to recruit and train new volunteers, and said Company 9 uses funds for necessary equipment.
While multiple council members recognized the important contributions of volunteer firefighters and agreed the city should work to recruit more volunteers and expand their role in future years, they said funding for those efforts should come out of the city budget rather than the two percent benefit funds.
“I am appreciative of how this has highlighted the functions of our volunteer firefighters, and that there has been an active dedication among our volunteers to try to nurture and grow the volunteer company. I think that is important,” said alderperson Cynthia Brock, in a comment many of her colleagues echoed.
She said she was nevertheless voting for the change because it would more equitably distribute funds meant to benefit all active firefighters, including career firefighters.
After the unanimous vote, Gilligan said he wished the city had taken more time to consider how the cuts would impact Company 9. He said the company has used two percent funds to buy equipment like a vehicle, rain gear, and radios volunteers can take home, which haven’t been given to volunteers by IFD.
“I’m just disappointed,” he said. “We feel that if there had been more time to discuss the options further, perhaps there would have been a different solution.”
Gilligan said he hopes Common Council members stand by their stated commitment to fund volunteer firefighters’ recruitment, training and equipment so that volunteers can continue to play a vital role in Ithaca.
“I’m particularly concerned about the future of volunteerism… I hope that the Common Council does provide assistance and help get the word out that we want people to volunteer,” he said.