ENFIELD, N.Y. — Volunteers have historically been the backbone for the emergency services of rural towns and villages, but their numbers are declining. 

The phenomenon has been attributed to a myriad of factors: declining wage growth in the U.S., the increase in hours worked and number of jobs people are working, younger demographics leaving the Southern Tier and rural areas — but no matter the explanation, the effect is that towns, like Enfield in Tompkins County, are faced with a crisis and a need for new measures to preserve the function of life saving services.

To retain and recruit volunteers in his town, Enfield Councilperson Bob Lynch is trying to get a little more change into the pockets of volunteers. The hope Lynch has is that more attractive benefits will improve the retention and recruitment for the fire and ambulance services.

Lynch has kicked off the process that may end up codifying a limited property tax exemption for EMS and fire volunteers, meaning that volunteers would not be taxed on some percentage of their home’s value. 

The Town of Enfield passed a resolution in April proposing “no greater than a […]10%” reduction, for emergency service volunteers. The resolution was sent to the Tompkins County Legislature to be considered. So if a volunteer’s home was assessed at $200,000, they would be exempt from paying taxes on $20,000 of that home’s value.

For the exemption to be realized, though, it can’t just be passed by the Tompkins County Legislature. Creating a property tax exemption is under the state’s authority. The law, although it would be specific to Tompkins County, would need to be introduced to and passed by the New York State Legislature, then signed into law by the NYS governor. If the law came into effect, it would allow taxing entities in Tompkins County to provide an exemption for EMS and fire volunteers, such as the county, towns and villages, and even school districts if the law is written to accommodate that.

Tompkins County Assessor Jay Franklin said that, according to his count, around 30 counties in New York have had such a law passed by New York state, with nearby Monroe County, which includes Rochester, being the most recent to do so. 

Lynch said that he didn’t know if the property tax exemption is the best way to retain and incentivize volunteers to join Enfields EMS and fire services, “but it’s one way, and it’s a way that other communities, and other counties have proposed and some have have granted, and it’s worth a try.”

Lynch has been making the rounds, talking to the county legislature about the resolution, and on Thursday the Tompkins County Government Operations Committee discussed its potential.

The crisis of the volunteer shortage was recognized by many of the Legislators attending the committee meeting, including Legislators Lee Shurtleff (R-District 9), Travis Brooks (D-District 1), and Dan Klein (D-District 7).

“We have a real crisis here, which is the rural communities are losing ambulance service and fire service. It’s a fact. It’s widespread. I feel like we need to address it,” said Klein.

He added that he was in favor of the approach, but raised the issue that the exemption might not be “equitable,” since it only applies to and incentivizes property owners, but that this shouldn’t be a distraction from getting something done to address the problem.

“I am in favor of this approach. It doesn’t resolve everything. I don’t know if it’s completely equitable, and there’s a lot of things it maybe doesn’t do, but it does something,” said Klein. 

Franklin suggested to the committee that another similar method could be to petition the state, or possibly the federal government, for an income tax credit, which would be a more “inclusive” exemption.

“Pretty much everybody has income, or would pay income taxes or be able to receive the benefit of a credit,” said Franklin.

Franklin acknowledged additional complexities that would be on the table for an income tax credit to be put into place, but noted that with the limited time left in the state’s legislative session, the possibility of a law codifying a property tax exemption is likely in the timeline for 2023, leaving a long period for the county legislature to discuss their options.

Legislator Greg Mezey (D-District 13) said that if the program were to be adopted, then he would want to see a data collection process tied into it in order to see if this helps solve the problem, or if the tax break just rewards current volunteers.

One concern that seemed to be dismissed by the end of Thursday’s committee meeting was the impact on other property tax payers that may result from an exemption for other volunteers. The exemption on property tax for some would mean that county residents would have to make up the difference. However, the amount would be “imperceptible” according to Shurtleff, who shared some back-of-the-envelope calculations on Thursday. Shurtleff served as the Director of Tompkins County Department of Emergency Response for 17 years and is deeply involved in the Groton Fire Department.

“I think the gain outweighs any pain,” said Lynch.

Another look at the issue

One option that some municipalities have embraced is an added tax to support paying for EMT and paramedic, and firefighter staff. To Lynch, this options seems largely out of the question. Enfield, he said, is not an affluent rural community. However, this is an approach that has been adopted by the Town of Candor in Tioga County. 

Lynch brought up the Village of Trumansburg which does have paid EMT, paramedics, and firefighter staff as well as a healthy cohort of volunteer firefighters — though not EMTs. Though, the cost of supporting these services in the view of Village officials is too burdensome for a rural municipality to handle.

Trumansburg Mayor Rordan Hart and Deputy Mayor Ben Carver have pushed for the volunteer shortage in EMS to be viewed as an issue that needs to be addressed with resources larger than those available to a county, let alone a town. It should be viewed as a state problem, they say

“I’m a believer in an all-of-the-above approach, when you have what I believe to be a real crisis,” Hart said in support of a property tax credit for volunteer EMS and Fire. He added, “If you can give a property tax break to people who put their lives on the line, I’m all for it.”

But he wants to see a systemic shift of how ambulances and firefighters are staffed. Hart is advocating for a system to be built to allocate state aid to ambulance and fire services similar to New York’s Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS). That program, established in 1981, allocates state aid to municipalities for highway maintenance and repair. A bill in the New York State Legislature sponsored by State Senator Michelle Hinchey (D-46) and Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-125) would move to establish this, although it appears it has not gathered much traction in the legislature. 

“It’s just a simple fact that the number of people available to volunteer their time, the way they did many years ago, is not the same,” said Hart.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn