Plans to improve the benefits package for volunteer firefighters in Howard County have begun to heat up again after County Executive Ken Ulman proposed a new bill that would increase payments to long-serving volunteers.
The bill would amend the local version of a national program called the Length of Service Award Program, or LoSAP, and would increase the base monthly payout for volunteers over the age of 50 and with 25 years of service from $250 to $459 -- approximately 1 percent of the salary of a firefighter trainee.
The bill, which was announced by Ulman on Monday, will be introduced on July 7 and will be part of a July 21 legislative public hearing. If passed, it would go into effect in January 2015.
The bill is the latest attempt by the county to improve the benefits of veteran volunteer firefighters, who, along with career firefighters, make up the county's Department of Fire and Rescue Services.
Last fall, a similar bill proposing the same payment bump was killed during the legislative process after volunteers objected to a stipulation regarding extra payments.
LoSAP has a provision that allows volunteers to collect $10 more per month for each year of service beyond 25 years, meaning a 30-year veteran could be eligible for up to $50 more per month than a 25-year veteran.
The county proposed making the extra funds available only to volunteers who meet "minimum operation requirements," which volunteers argued last fall was unrealistic for older volunteers who are no longer suited for field work but assist in other ways. The bill was pulled because of the disagreement.
The newest version has the same language regarding requirements, and has the support of the volunteers.
A county-issued release said that chiefs and presidents from all six of the county's volunteer departments -- Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department, Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department, West Friendship Volunteer Fire Department, Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company, Fifth District Volunteer Fire Department and Savage Volunteer Fire Company -- have endorsed the changes.
“We thank County Executive Ulman and his team for working on these improvements,” said Mickey Day, Chief of West Friendship, in the news release. “Our members work side by side with career personnel to make important contributions and we are pleased that those contributions are being recognized.”
F. Patrick Marlatt, Chief of the Fifth District Volunteer Fire Department, added, “These changes mean Howard County’s LoSAP program will set a statewide standard for recognition of the value of volunteer service. This is tremendous progress and we are thrilled that our strong volunteer system has an even more solid foundation.”
Ulman and department Chief William Goddard praised the volunteers for their contributions.
“The service provided by our volunteer firefighters saves lives and saves taxpayer money, and it is only right that we recognize the value of those contributions,” Ulman said in the release. “These dedicated men and women put their lives at risk on behalf of the community. The improved benefits recognize the importance of their service, and are fiscally prudent.”
Goddard added: “Historically, volunteers are the foundation of this Department. We’ve worked hard to develop programs that recognize the value of all our members -– career and volunteer. These changes are a significant step forward.”
The bill also would provide benefits to surviving family members, and includes a $5,000 burial stipend and a six-month payment extension for a surviving spouse.
The release states there are 92 volunteers receiving benefits, and the bill would increase the cost of the program by approximately $248,000 annually.