Editorial: Incentives are better than pay for volunteer firefighters

Posted 8/29/19

Often celebrated for their sacrifices and volunteer spirit, this town’s firefighters are not often recognized for one of their greatest contributions — saving taxpayers a lot of money. …

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Editorial: Incentives are better than pay for volunteer firefighters

Posted

Often celebrated for their sacrifices and volunteer spirit, this town’s firefighters are not often recognized for one of their greatest contributions — saving taxpayers a lot of money. Bristol’s volunteer firefighters have provided a service that most other communities spend $3 million or more for annually.

They leap from their beds in the middle of the night, and they wage war with flames amid brutal weather conditions, partly because they love it, partly because it’s “in their blood,” and because they do, the rest of the town’s residents don’t have to pay for a full-time department’s salaries, benefits and pensions.

It is in taxpayers’ best interests to maintain a healthy, active and skilled volunteer fire department for as long as possible — not a foregone conclusion in a society where volunteerism is on the wane.

Fire Chief Michael DeMello recognized this two to three years ago, when he first began researching incentive programs to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters. After studying various models across America, he determined the best and most effective incentive is a property tax rebate for the volunteers.

The chief’s plan would have given property tax rebates of up to $2,500 annually for active firefighters, with various tiers based on their volume of calls, rank and level of training. If they did not own property, they could reduce or eliminate their motor vehicle tax. If they did not live in town or own any property, they could earn a small cash stipend.

Town leaders initially loved the idea, but it was always subject to funding approval. In the first year, it was not immediately funded. Now in year two, the program has changed significantly.

Gone are the tax rebates, replaced entirely by stipends. This year, the town council approved $500 stipends for the 46 firefighters who met the minimum standard. They say the original plan was too complex, though unfortunately, they never actually tried it.

Call it a stipend. Call it an incentive. But call it what it is … a paycheck. The Town of Bristol is now paying its volunteer firefighters, $500 per year. The amount is not fixed and is subject to the annual budgetary process, and the most active and qualified firefighters could soon be earning $2,500 per year.

That’s the same amount they could receive in the original tax abatement program, which seemed like a great incentive for a great number of firefighters. Consider the family of four who could look forward to a 50 percent reduction in their $5,000 annual property tax bill.

The tax abatement sort of just “felt” right. It was a welcomed, appreciated reduction to a family’s expense burden — a nice “thank you” from the Town of Bristol.

A stipend is not the same. A stipend is payment for services rendered — $500 (before taxes) for someone donating hundreds of hours to the community. How long before the volunteers start calculating their true hourly rate …?

If the original program was too complex to manage, perhaps it needs simplification of the tiers or requirements. If too many of the active volunteers do not qualify because they are not homeowners, then perhaps it needs more creative “payments,” like a rental voucher toward housing costs.

Everyone involved is looking for the same thing, to maintain a robust volunteer fire department for generations, if possible. However, taxpayers should be concerned about the baby step toward personal compensation; it’s easy to see this becoming the proverbial slippery slope that leads to unintended consequences.

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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.