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Howard volunteer firefighter benefits bill goes up in smoke, for now

Laws and Legislation

It's back to the drawing board for a planned enhanced benefits package for veteran Howard County volunteer firefighters.

Last week, the county government's administration requested that the County Council withdraw the Length of Service Award Program bill, which was due for a vote at the council's legislative session in early November.

Howard Fire Chief Bill Goddard said he was "surprised" by testimony from some volunteer firefighters who disagreed with parts of the bill at a public hearing Oct. 21.

"I was convinced that we had an agreement on what was presented to the County Council," he said.

After the public hearing, he said, "I felt it important... to withdraw the bill and sit down with the leadership of the [volunteer firefighters'] association, and try to better understand the direction that we can go."   

But, he added, "This still doesn't mean that this is over with. It's still an important initiative. The executive is just as committed today as he was last week to ensure that the program goes forward in some fashion."

Volunteer firefighter Kenny Livesay said he was disappointed that the administration requested the bill be withdrawn because "it was close to being right."

But, he said, "this is how it goes… when it comes to the volunteers. [The administration] got a slam dunk and they messed it up."

The bill would have improved upon the benefits received by volunteer firefighters, who are unpaid for their work, after reaching the age of 50 and having served at least 25 years.

Currently, veteran volunteers receive a monthly benefit of $250. The new bill would have increased that monthly payment to 1 percent of the starting salary of a firefighter trainee, or about $459. According to county officials, that would have been the highest volunteer benefit in the state.

But the bill's sticking point was a new set of standards required for volunteers to receive the full benefits offered by the program. In addition to the monthly LoSAP payment – which every volunteer 50 and older with 25 or more years of service would receive – veteran volunteers would have been eligible for an annual increase of $10 more per month for each year of service above 25 years.

But in order to receive that increase, they would have to maintain "current minimum operation requirements," according to the bill.

Goddard had proposed an amendment that would grandfather in volunteers who currently receive the benefit so that they could get the increase without meeting extra requirements. But volunteers said they would like to see all current volunteer firefighters and EMTs, or at least those who had served five years or more, exempt from the new requirements. 

At the public hearing, the president of the Howard County Volunteer Firemen's Association and several other volunteer firefighters said keeping up to date with training requirements was unrealistic for older firefighters and EMTs who still want to contribute but are not in top physical condition.

Many older volunteers, they said, continue to support the fire department by doing administrative work at stations and helping with fundraising.

"What do you do with someone that's got 25 years in the service and they get to their 26th year and they can't see as well anymore, hear as well anymore, but the guy next to him gets an increase?" Livesay asked. "It just isn't fair."

Goddard contended that maintaining training standards was not a big hurdle. "To actually get training takes many, many hours," he said.  But "to maintain the training typically is refresher-type courses, where you go into a classroom and you sit down for a couple of hours and you have to take a written exam."

"Maintaining the standards are, quite frankly, not that difficult," he added.

Livesay said he was disappointed the volunteers were back to square one.

"Now what? This has been worked on for two years," he said. "It was so easy. All they needed to do was say 'yes, you're right.'"

Goddard said he requested the bill be withdrawn rather than tabled because "it needs more time.

When you table it, you're tied to a legislative process, " he said. "I try not to let time drive this, because this is a difficult issue."

A majority of County Council members said they would support the executive's request to withdraw the bill.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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