A growing bipartisan effort in the Legislature is mounting for the next state budget to include millions of more dollars in funding to rescue volunteer fire departments in addition to what Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed in her executive budget last month.
Members of the Senate and Assembly want $50 million to create the state's first Volunteer Fire Services Capital Fund. The Senate included the provision in its one-house budget proposal while the Assembly asked for a $10 million investment.
The Legislature supports the $10 million fund Gov. Hochul proposed to give stipends to volunteer firefighters who complete training as a recruiting incentive for younger volunteers.
John D'Alessandro, secretary with the Firefighter's Association of the State of New York, says the best state budget would include provisions from a combination of what lawmakers and the governor want.
"Great ideas are a good start, but we need to bring things across the finish line so they have direct impact at the grassroots level in our towns and our villages," D'Alessandro said in the state Capitol on Thursday.
Dozens of lawmakers rallied for higher, more long-term investments for volunteer fire departments Thursday with FASNY before the legislative session.
The Senate also wants to quadruple the tax credit for volunteer firefighters and EMS to $800 and allow them to receive a 10% property tax exemption.
State law currently prohibits volunteers from collecting both simultaneously.
"Funding for capital improvements will not only help keep costs down in our communities and for taxpayers across our state, but it will actually support our volunteer firefighters and give them the equipment they need to protect themselves and their families," said state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, a Saugerties Democrat who's led the push in the upper house.
Hochul's budget proposed changing state law to allow municipalities to provide nominal fees to volunteer firefighters for their time and service.
A spokesperson with Gov. Hochul's office says the governor's proposals in her executive budget show she is committed to revitalizing New York’s emergency medical services in the next budget to ensure access to this life-saving care for communities statewide. But negotiations are in the early stages, and ongoing for the deal to be reached in the final budget due April 1.
New federal and state regulations continue to require expensive upgrades to firehouses or equipment, putting a greater burden on languishing volunteer departments.
New York's volunteer firefighters save taxpayers about $3.8 billion per year of savings in salaries and benefits, according to a FASNY economic analysis released this week.
The state would need 31,000 more career firefighters across the state to switch to an all-paid system.
The total annual cost of an all-career fire service in New York, including salaries, benefits, operating costs and debt service is $4.7 billion.
But about 1,500 fire stations would have to be rebuilt or reconstructed to create that kind of system — and FASNY's report estimates it would cost more than $8 billion for the state to acquire any existing fire stations or structures.
These expenses would cause taxes to increase more than 28% unless the state decides to budget to invest in volunteer fire departments before the longtime services and their supports dry up.
"There is no reason, there is no reason absolutely whatsoever when we ask volunteers to get up in the middle of the night to come out and protect our families that in the meantime on the weekends, they need to do bake sales and car washes and everything else just to provide the basic equipment they need to protect us," Assemblyman Billy Jones said.
The Democrat from Plattsburgh sponsors legislation to create a similar capital fund for volunteer departments for $100 million annually. The Senate's proposal is a strong start to the support departments need, Jones added.
Inadequate finances and members have led to longer response times, increasing up to two minutes in certain communities over the last eight years, according to FASNY's report.
Volunteer fire departments provide about 80& of the protection for all fire incidents outside of New York City.
New York has around 80,000 volunteer firefighters today, down from around 120,000 volunteer firefighters in the early 2000s, according to FASNY.
"We need people — that's the bottom line," D'Alessandro said. "We could have all the greatest equipment, the newest trucks, but if we can't put that in the hands of trained, dedicated men and women, they have little to no value."