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East Pembroke Fire will ask voters to make it the first department to offer retirement benefits to volunteers

By Howard B. Owens

CORRECTION:  After receiving comments stating that East Pembroke is not the first to pursue LOSAP, The Batavian checked with Emergency Management Coordinator Tim Yaeger, who said Pavilion Fire instituted a LOSAP program in 2022.  We regret that we weren't aware of this program, but Pavilion Fire never sent out any announcement to the local media about the program. Despite comments to the contrary, no other department in Genesee County has instituted LOSAP. 

If voters in the East Pembroke Fire District approve the proposition on Aug. 29, volunteers in that fire department would become the first in Genesee County to have a chance to earn retirement benefits in exchange for their service to the community.

The proposal is a recruitment and retention strategy, said Fire District President James Gayton, to help avoid the expense of replacing volunteers with paid, career firefighters, which he noted would be far more expensive for taxpayers than the proposed retirement benefit.

"We were always told by the previous administration that we couldn't afford (the retirement program), that we didn't want to pay for it, but now that I'm in charge, I wanted to look into it," Gayton said. "The alternative is to go to a paid career staff, and do you really want to fund that -- verse $29,000 a year -- over our entire tax base?"

It's been well publicized over the past few years that volunteer fire departments, not just in Genesee County, are struggling to maintain a sufficient volunteer base to adequately respond to emergency calls.

Gayton sees the proposal -- the only way to legally compensate volunteers in New York -- as a potential way to attract new recruits as well as ensure that current members stick around.

The program, run by an insurance company known as LOSAP, or Length of Service Awards Program, would allow qualifying volunteers to earn $20 a month in retirement benefits for each year of service, with firefighters becoming fully vested after five years of qualifying service.

To qualify, firefighters need to accrue 50 points a year for responding to calls, going to training, helping out at fundraisers, and other service for the department.

"The requirements are so obtainable that a snowbird can get the points just in the six months they're up here," Gayton said.

Many current department members have years, if not decades, of service.  The proposal will allow them to qualify for immediate vesting, which Gayton called a "buyback." The buyback can only cover the most recent five years of service but the extra expense means taxpayers will need to contribute $112,000 a year for five years. After that, premiums are an estimated $29,000 a year.

The initial retirement age will be 65, but Gayton hopes the district can eventually lower it to 55.  He would also like to see the retirement payout increased to $30 a month once the "buyback" is paid off.

Once members are vested, their beneficiaries will receive a lump sum payment of any benefits they qualified for, up to 10 years of benefits, that haven't yet been paid out.

"A lot of guys don't think about retirement until the time is on them," Gayton noted.  He hopes the program will draw the attention of younger recruits who realize it's an easy way to start accruing a little extra retirement income.

He said that while no department in Genesee County has yet adopted the program, several departments have contacted him recently, and he said that most volunteer departments in Monroe and Erie counties participate.

There is a public hearing on the proposal at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the fire hall, 8655 Barrett Drive, Batavia.  An attorney will be on hand to answer questions.

The vote will be held at the fire hall from 6 to 9 p.m. on Aug. 29.

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