Friday, December 08, 2006

"Yesterday, December 7th. . ."

Today, December 8th. . .

Ah, yesterday. When wars were fought reluctantly and with a purpose. When a volunteer was just that, a volunteer.

Volunteer. Webster's defines "volunteer" as "One who enters into, or offers for, any service of his own free will, without compulsion, remuneration or valuable consideration."

Our own federal government, be it what it is, has codified the meaning of "volunteer." "An individual who performs hours of service for a public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered." 29 CFR 553.101

Many of you reading this -- civic leaders, community advocates, hometown activists -- are volunteers, in the purest sense of the word. You offer your services to the community and beyond, in the hope of creating a better town, a better world, without a paycheck, a pension, a property tax exemption, or, in the case of you beleagured civic association presidents, past and present, Secret Service protection.

So, what has become of the volunteer in our society, and, more particularly, here on our Long Island?

We need look no further than our own local "volunteer" fire departments -- progeny of those "special" fire districts -- to see that volunteerism ain't quite what it used to be.

Commissioners, Chiefs and Ex-Chiefs all complain, and rightfully so, that it is difficult in these harried and hurried times to recruit new members, let alone to maintain adequate staffing levels. In a day when folks work two or three jobs simply to make ends meet, where family time is reduced to nearly meaningless sound bytes, it has become necessary to offer incentives to get young men and women to volunteer for the fire service.

And so, we, as a community, offer tax breaks by way of reduced property taxes, all-expense paid junkets to warmer climes for training and to boost morale, and pension credits -- yes, a pension, for a job that is supposedly performed (or so they would have us believe) by volunteers, for the good of community, without either compensation or the expectation of reward.

True enough, our firefighters, many of whom put themselves on the front lines when disaster strikes near and far (as distinguished from those who simply "sign-in" but rarely show, just so they can accumulate service credits), are deserving of our praise, our thanks, and, yes, even a property tax break in the name of valued service to community. But a pension for what is held out to the public as an unpaid position heretofore called a "volunteer?"

In one community within earshot of this blog, the local fire district is proposing to change the District Service Award* Program by reducing the age of “entitlement” from 60 to 55, at an annual additional cost to the taxpayers of $137,905.00.

The initiative will be on the ballot when the fire district holds elections on Tuesday, December 12th.

Though a public notice posting said proposition appeared in Newsday in November, as was required by law, there has been scant publicity on this important issue impacting upon the taxpayer. Even the local press has given no more than a matter-of-fact reporting, sans analysis or comment. No public hearing (of which the public probably wouldn't be informed, anyway), nor so much as a flyer in the door.

In fact, the local fire department's own website, which claims that it is developed "to keep the residents of our community informed," makes no mention of either the Service Award proposition or, interestingly enough (though of no great surprise), the December 12th fire district elections.

One would think this odd, but for the fact that such utter and willfull failure to communicate with the public they serve (and tax) has pretty much become entrenched as standard practice and policy among fire districts, water districts, and sanitary districts. They'll gladly take your tax money -- and, in the case of fire departments, your "voluntary" contributions -- but please, don't ask to be kept informed.

Apparently, taxpayers on Long Island are alerted only on a "need to know" basis, and there does not appear to be all that much that we, the people, need to know, care to know, or know we should know. Who knew?

We know a few civic leaders -- some of you are breaking into a pained grimace about now -- who are also out there on the front lines of community, selflessly serving, taking a beating, and giving every last hour of their time and every last fiber of their being. They don't receive property tax exemptions (notwithstanding the fact that they are the ones fighting, day in and day out, to lower our property taxes), they don't get trips to Vegas or the Bahamas on the taxpayers' dime (not even carfare to and from Town Hall), and there are no pensions or "service awards" at the end of many, many years preaching the virtues -- and fighting the evils -- of community.

But that's okay. For these folks are the real heroes of community (although they rarely see themselves as such). These are the tried and true volunteers, as we understand the meaning of the word.

We have no problem offering carrots to volunteers -- be they firefighters or otherwise. But please, be mindful of the cost to community -- not only to the taxpayer, but to the very notion of voluntary service.
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For those who reside within the boundaries of the local fire district (whose name dare not be mentioned) in which the proposed amendment to the Service Award Program shall appear on the ballot, the election of a Commissioner, and vote on the proposition, will be held Tuesday, December 12, 2006, between 4 PM and 9 PM, at the local firehouse. Shhhhhhhhhhh! Don’t tell anyone…
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*Article 11-A of the General Municipal Law authorizes certain local governments in New York State to establish and sponsor length of service award programs (LOSAP's) for volunteer firefighters. These programs provide municipally funded pension like benefits based on an individual's length of volunteer firefighting service. The programs are established at local option and are administered at the local level.

There appears to be more than 500 programs in operation with what is estimated by the National Volunteer Fire Council to be over a quarter of a billion dollars invested in these programs by local governments in New York on behalf of volunteer firefighters.

Service award programs for volunteer firefighters were authorized by legislation that became effective on September 1, 1989. The purpose of the legislation was to facilitate the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters.

For more information on the Service Award Program, contact the New York State and Local Retirement System. 110 State Street, Albany, NY 12244-0001. Phone: (866) 805-0990. Fax: (518) 402-4433.
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UPDATE: The proposition to lower the retirement age for "entitlement" to the "service award" as appeared on the ballot of that local fire district whose name we dare not mention here went down to defeat on December 12th.

Apparently, folks are not only reading the blog, but the message we're putting out there is beginning to sink in!

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