Sen. Charles Schumer has been making the rounds in New York state with his plan to give volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians a $1,000 federal income tax credit. Co-sponsored with Rep. Maurice Hinchey in conjunction with a state bill to provide property tax breaks for volunteers, the idea has merit — if the government can afford it.
New Yorkers — all Americans, really — just aren’t volunteering to protect their towns and small communities from fires like they used to. They’re either too busy with their jobs or families, too lazy, too selfish — there are any number of reasons. But using volunteers to fight the rare suburban or rural fire makes far more sense from a financial standpoint than having a full-time professional staff. In fact, the National Volunteer Fire Council estimates that the nation’s 825,000 volunteer firefighters save their communities $37.2 billion annually.
Volunteers are getting harder to come by, unfortunately. The decline in New York over the past decade has been 28 percent, while nationally it has been 10 percent. Schumer’s plan, of giving anyone who spends at least six months as a volunteer and at least 40 hours per year working in that capacity $1,000 off their federal tax bill, would be a real incentive for a lot of fence-sitters to sign up. Combined with a measure in the state Legislature that would allow communities to provide property tax relief of up to 10 percent, the bill might solve a lot of fire companies’ staffing problems overnight.
But can we afford it? The cost would exceed $800 million nationally — obviously a lot of money, but not so much when compared to the cost savings that volunteers provide.
Another issue: Is it fair to ask taxpayers in cities, who already pay for their firefighting forces through local taxes, to pay a second time, through Schumer’s national tax credit plan? No, but for the greater good — the safety of hundreds of millions of Americans — it’s probably worth doing.