Bill to attract and retain volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel stalls in Illinois

Springfield —- Last week, fire officials and state legislators met at the Illinois state capital rallying for the approval of a bill designed to help alleviate the shortage of volunteer firefighters and EMS workers in the state.

Senate Bill 3027, which would provide a $500 state income tax credit for volunteer emergency workers who earn less than $10,000 in stipends for their service to the fire department, passed the Senate unanimously with 51 of the possible 58 votes on February 23. The tax credit would apply to EMS personnel who have worked for a fire department or fire protection district for at least nine months.

Unfortunately, the vote was essentially put on hold by the house after being assigned to the Revenue and Finance Committee on March 7. The proposed legislation is similar to those in New York, Iowa, and Maryland.

It is estimated the state would lose $20 million to $22 million in lost tax revenue annually if in enacted. Some lawmakers say it is a small price to pay to keep Illinoians safe.

"First responders are always at the forefront of each incident or disaster," said State Senator Meg Loughran Cappel (D-Shorewood). "The past couple of years have been very challenging for these individuals and it’s my hope that creating a tax credit will show our support to the people who keep our communities safe and incentivize more people to join our departments,"

Rep. Tom Bennett (R-Gibson City) added, "With the critical shortage of volunteers and the amount of taxpayer dollars they save us, we can’t afford NOT to pass this legislation, which will help encourage recruitment and retention who serve our communities selflessly."

Highland Fire Chief Kerry Federer said the shortage is a public safety crisis. The number of emergency and fire calls to departments around the state has tripled.

"This reflects a nationwide shortage of volunteers, contributing factors which include: the aging population of volunteers, increased training requirements, and newer policies, which prohibit full-time firefighters from volunteering in their own communities," Federer said in a statement from the Illinois Firefighters Association.

Senator Neil Anderson (R-Rock Island), who is also a fireman in the Quad Cities, said volunteer first-responders deserve the financial support from the state.

"People’s lives have changed, and volunteer department numbers are down," Anderson said. "If we can find a way to attract more volunteer emergency workers with a little incentive, it is something this small that could play a big role in saving someone’s home or their livelihoods. My hope is this bill will help increase and maintain retention rates for volunteer departments who already see greater challenges because of less resources."

Seven senators - one Republican and six Democrats - did not cast a vote after the third reading of the bill.

The legislation also removes provisions concerning volunteer fire protection associations and updates the definition of "volunteer emergency worker". Lawmakers behind the measure hope the legislation is approved before the legislature adjourns on April 8.

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