JOHNSTOWN — Lawmakers in Fulton County could vote on a conditional tax break for volunteer firefighters and EMTs next week.
The proposal is enabled by state legislation passed last year which allows local governments and school districts to waive property taxes up to 10% for some volunteer emergency personnel.
A few strings attached: volunteers must be active, hold at least five years of membership, reside in their own tax district of service and use their property strictly for residential purposes. Recipients must reapply annually until they’ve been involved for 20 years or more.
Fulton County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott Horton ultimately supports the measure, albeit wishes that that state took a different approach.
“I think the right direction would be to state up the amount of the tax [credit] volunteer firefighters can take so that it’s a level playing field,” Horton said. “They all serve and they serve their communities well so why there’s a requirement that they must live in the same district that they serve is befuddling to me.”
The tax break is up for a public hearing on Monday at the Republican-dominated Board of Supervisors’ monthly business meeting in Johnstown.
County administrator Jon Stead doesn’t anticipate much division over the legislation. He noted that the tax break won’t have “a huge financial impact” given its narrow focus.
Similar legislation has already been adopted by taxing authorities across the state, including Rotterdam and Round Lake amid a nationwide shortage of volunteer emergency personnel.
New York has 20,000 fewer volunteer firefighters than 20 years ago while the number of emergency calls has incrementally increased, according to a 2022 state report.
“Years ago, we used to get 25 to 35 men show up to our meetings,” said Jack Wilston, town supervisor of Johnstown and 62-year Pleasant Square Fire Department volunteer. “There is a problem. We’re down to 14, 16 [members] on a good month at a monthly meeting.”
RGL Fire Chief and Fulton County EMS Coordinator Mark Souza began noticing a stark decrease in membership as early as the late 2010s. Depopulation and generational time constraints are likely factors in the mix, the 30-year firefighter maintained.
The quality of service hasn’t decreased, but instead, requires more regional coordination, Souza said.
“Normally if I had a structure fire, I might call one or two other fire departments to help me,” Souza said. “Now you’re calling five, six, to help because there’s not enough people during the day.”
Souza believes that the property tax measure isn’t likely to recruit teenagers and twenty somethings.
“The problem is that we need to get people that are 18, 19, 20 in the fire company,” Souza said. “How many 18, 19 year olds own their own house? So, that really doesn’t help them that much.”
The state’s existing income tax credit for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers is $200.
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or [email protected] Follow him on Facebook at Tyler A. McNeil, Daily Gazette or Twitter @TylerAMcNeil