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An exercise in political grandstanding

May 22, 2019 10:01 pm

To the many stories that end with the moral, the road to ruin is paved with good intentions, add another — legislation that would exempt volunteer firefighters and first responders in New York from paying state income tax.

Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-102, introduced a bill to beef up volunteer first responder services by offering a 100% exemption from state income taxes. If adopted, the bill would apply to eligible volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services personnel, and would make them fully exempt from paying state income taxes.

Unlike other entities that receive tax breaks, volunteer EMS and fire companies are nonprofits that, in many areas, including the Twin Counties, are fighting for survival. Members are dropping out because of demands placed on them by jobs and families. It now takes hundreds of hours to be certified and new firefighters often must cover the cost of training. Recruitment is slipping.

But it is unclear how many volunteer firefighters and emergency medical services personnel would be eligible for the exemption. Other questions that must be answered are how much revenue will be lost by granting income tax exemptions to more than 110,000 volunteer firefighters (according to the New York Times News Service) and who will make up the deficit.

Complicating all of this is the appearance of political pandering by state Republicans. Pressing for votes, they are offering a cynical solution to a problem that has too many facets.

Other costs are contributing to the dwindling of the ranks, according to the New York Times News Service report. Since the 1980s, for example, the price of a single self-contained breathing apparatus has jumped to more than $5,000, from $900. A fire engine costs $400,000 more than it did 30 years ago.

In surveys, firefighters consistently cite the endless burden of fundraising, which takes up to 60 percent of their work time, as one of the biggest deterrents to staying on the job, according to the New York Times.

The stakes are high because volunteers save not only lives but money — more than $139.8 billion annually for local governments, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Yes, the volunteers put their lives on the line on every call. No one is disputing that. We object to the GOP twisting the plight of firefighters and EMS personnel to score feel-good political points without a solid plan to back it up. Volunteer first responders will continue to do fine work in the Twin Counties, but engaging in cynical political gestures sends the wrong message and distracts from the real problems volunteers now face.