Growing expectations of volunteer firefighters, a lack of benefits for volunteering and the struggling economy has caused steady declines in volunteerism in recent years, Southington Fire Chief Harold “Buddy” Clark said.
But a letter to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal that Clark wrote in late August could be the first step in gaining the congressional support needed to buck the trend.
Blumenthal visited the Southington Fire Department on Tuesday, offering support to volunteer fire departments across the state by backing Clark’s request to fight for the passage of two bills that would essentially assist departments in the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters.
“This set of bills is as important to Southington as it is to departments across the nation,” said Clark, who first asked for help in a letter dated August 28. “The burden right now lies on the towns by taxing benefits that should be subject to a tax break.”
See the complete text of the letter in the attached PDF.
Blumenthal addressed an audience that included volunteer department administrators from across the state, saying he agrees with their concerns and sees no reason the bills should not pass through this session.
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The two bills, Senate Bill 933/House Bill 376 and Senate Bill 1911/House Bill 2353, would reinstate tax breaks designed to increase volunteer recruitment and enhance retention rates nationwide. Under the bills, volunteers would receive breaks on taxation in order to “reduce the burdensome impact of federal taxation on volunteer benefits.”
The first bill in particular, Senate Bill 933, would exempt all properly tax benefits and up to $600 per year of other types of benefits that volunteers receive from being subject to federal income and taxes. A similar bill was in place in 2007, but expired in 2010 when Congress failed to renew it.
The second bill would then also allow for greater local contributions to the length of service award programs, or LOSAP, while also allowing for tax exemption for such benefits.
“What we are talking about here, the amount of money that the government would spend is minimal,” Blumenthal said. “If the federal government declares these tax benefits, it would mean miniscule changes in revenue. There’s no excuse for this not moving forward.”
Mystic Fire Chief Fritz Hilbert, one of several volunteer department chiefs at the forum, said he believes it is vital to work with Blumenthal directly and find a way to help him pass these bills through Congress. He said Blumenthal has been a top supporter of firefighters since before he became a senator and hopes the latest effort will yield positive results.
Blumenthal on Tuesday also encouraged the firefighters and local departments to take up a letter writing campaign to support their residents – an initiative that Clark said the forum proved could be the key to getting these two bills passed into law.
“I never expected him to take time out of his busy schedule to come in and talk with us directly,” Clark said. “This just goes to show the power of the pen.”
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