Small-town fire companies fear being strapped by state insurance program

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Firefighters battle a house fire in western Guilderland in 2016. A new law would offer coverage to volunteers who venture in buildings, but one Rensselaerville fire chief says that rarely happens for his crew.

RENSSELAERVILLE — Fire chiefs in Rensselaerville are concerned that a state law touted to help volunteers with cancer will harm small fire districts and their taxpayers.

At June’s Rensselaerville Town Board meeting, Supervisor Steve Pfleging said he supported the state bill that requires interior firefighters — those who go into burning buildings, as opposed to staying outside — be insured for certain types of cancer, but he characterized it as an a unfunded mandate placed on the town.

“This is something that is going to be very big when it comes to our budget … ,” Pfleging said. “Really, they should have gotten it for free.”

The state law was created in response to studies indicating firefighters have a higher risk for cancer due to their on-the-job exposure. A study completed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted in 2010 found that firefighters in the study had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths than the general United States population.

Pfleging, who also serves as the chief of the Medusa Volunteer Fire Company, said that the new program, which begins in 2019, would have to be looked at with the local fire departments when next year’s town budget is prepared, and that he would be asking that the departments send in information on their eligible firefighters.

The town is served by the Medusa fire company, as well as the Rensselaerville Volunteer Fire Department and the Tri-Village Volunteer Fire Company. The 2018 budget, which was written before Pfleging started his term as supervisor, designates $62,150 in tax revenues and expenditures to the Medusa district, and $58,650 to Tri-Village and to Rensselaerville.

Pfleging told The Enterprise after the meeting that he estimates it would cost the town $7,000 to $8,000 annually if the amount paid for each eligible firefighter is $250.

Under the current law, a totally disabled firefighter may receive up to $600 a month in disability benefits. The new law, which was passed last October, provides benefits for 10 types of cancer — lung, prostate, breast, lymphatic, hematological, digestive, urinary, neurological, reproductive systems, or melanoma — for active volunteer firefighters or firefighters active in the last five years who have served as interior firefighters for at least five years. Eligible firefighters also have to have been cancer-free before they started volunteering.

Firefighters facing serious types of cancer would be eligible for a lump sum payment of $25,000 from a pool of $50,000 available for a second diagnosis. A monthly payment of $1,500 a month for three years would be available to a disabled firefighter.

The volunteer’s family would be eligible for $50,000 in an accidental death benefit. The benefits would be funded by property taxes to the fire district, and would be tax-exempt for the individuals receiving them.

Starting next year, fire departments must submit proof that they have insurance coverage or the ability to pay compensation for all eligible volunteers. The coverage will remain for five years after the department no longer has any eligible firefighters.

Rensselaerville’s fire chief, Bob Tanner, is concerned about the financial impact of the insurance program, but also believes that there is little need for it in his department. Out of 52 battalion members and firefighters, there are 10 interior firefighters, he said.

“We have one structure fire a year, and it’s usually so involved we don’t go into it,” he said.

Tanner said car fires are more common, and also involve exposure to hazardous chemicals.

“It’s still going to put a strain on our budget,” he said, “because we’re already on a razor-thin budget.”

The fire department’s budget is already strained due to what Tanner describes as other unfunded mandates, such as upgrading new equipment to stay up to code. An example is a radio system set up by the sheriff’s office for which the fire department will have to buy new radios.

Now, said Tanner, taxes for the fire district will increase again, upsetting the taxpayers. Besides raising taxes, the only other viable options for funds is applying for grants, but this does not always work out in the department’s favor.

Pfleging said on Tuesday that his concern lies with the increased costs to the taxpayers, but believes the program would benefit the fire departments. Of the 36 people in his department, he believes 10 would be eligible, and says that the firefighters often respond to interior fires.

He believes that the program is an unfunded mandate, adding to other mandated costs such as updating fire trucks, leading to increased taxes. When trying to upgrade a truck, for example, Pfleging said, his fire department applied for a grant but did not receive it.

“I don’t want to raise taxes on anybody. They already pay enough taxes … ,” he said. “We’re here to help our community, not hurt our community.”

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