Conn. town approves annual stipend for volunteer firefighters, ambulance corps
The action comes as fire departments and ambulance corps are finding it harder to recruit new members
By Jeff Mill
The Middletown Press, Conn.
EAST HAMPTON, Conn. — The Town Council has approved a program to pay volunteer firefighters and ambulance corps personnel an annual stipend for their service.
The council acted Tuesday to unanimously approve the program, which will now go to a public hearing on July 23 and then get final approval by the council.
Town Manager Michael Maniscalco said the program would take effect on July 1, 2020.
Until now, the town has granted members of the two services a tax abatement.
But many of the younger volunteers didn’t own enough taxable property to qualify for the abatement.
Still, other volunteers live out of town and thus were ineligible to take advantage of the abatement, which has been in effect since the 1990s.
The action comes as fire departments and ambulance corps across the state are finding it harder and harder to recruit new members and as federal and state mandates and regulations become increasingly more burdensome.
The council’s decision mirrors a similar action taken by the Portland Board of Selectmen some four years ago.
Maniscalco said he was initially approached by members of the Ambulance Association about finding a way to assist “five volunteers who don’t live in town.”
He went back to review the abatement program and almost immediately “one thing became very apparent,” he said Thursday morning.
“The abatement wasn’t doing a whole lot of good for many of the younger individuals who were volunteering.”
That piggy-backed on the fact that both the fire department and the ambulance corps “are having a problem with recruitment” of new members, he said.
Working with the Director of Finance Jeffrey M. Jylkka, Maniscalco fashioned the stipend program which was “both a little more of a carrot to assist in recruiting as well as being fairer.”
“It seems to be a more fair way,” Council Chairwoman Melissa H. Engel said when Maniscalco outlined the details of the proposal on Tuesday.
“It also allows people who live out of town to get something,” Engel said.
She credited former councilor John Tuttle with pushing for action on the stipend plan.
The stipend is $1,250 per person.
With taxes taken out (“It is income,” the manager noted) it would equal roughly $1,000.
Jylkka said Thursday 62 people are eligible for the stipends, at a total estimated cost of $77,500.
“Hopefully, with this in place, it will increase the number of recruits for both the fire department and the ambulance association, and in doing so, increase the number of people who are taking care of the community,” Maniscalco said.
Portland Fire Chief Robert J. Shea said Portland proceeded in the same way, first establishing an abatement and then switching to the stipend for the roughly 60-70 volunteer firefighters.
“I think it’s been a good program for us,” Shea said during a telephone conversation on Thursday.
To qualify for the stipend, a Portland firefighter “must respond to 10 percent of our annual call volume,” which he said is roughly 1,000 to 1,100 calls per year.
Those incidents include fires, motor-vehicle accidents and water rescues, as well as the department’s weekly training programs, Shea said.
However, firefighters must also keep current with state and federal mandates, which can add anywhere from 100 to 300 hours a year to a firefighter’s load.
Portland began with a $1,250 stipend but has since raised it to $1,500, Shea said.
“It’s a modest amount,” First Selectwoman Susan S. Bransfield said on Thursday. “But it helps defray the time and in some cases the travel our volunteers give up in order to serve us.”
Bransfield and Shea agreed the stipend helps both to recruit new members while retaining the existing cadre of firefighters.
“We are very fortunate to have a very well-managed fire department,” Bransfield said. “But sometimes I don’t think we thank our volunteers enough for all they do for us.”
©2019 The Middletown Press, Conn.