Bills to Aid Volunteers, And Local Municipalities Pass In Albany

Legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Fred Thiele designed to ensure volunteer firefighters, like those who fought a recent blaze at the Atlantic Bluffs Condominium complex in Montauk, can get length of service credit during the pandemic response has passed. MICHAEL HELLER

Two bills put forward by New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. designed to assist volunteers and municipalities have passed both the Assembly and State Senate and await the signature of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The first aims to ensure volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers receive adequate credits toward their length of service award programs during the COVID-19 outbreak. The second is designed to offer municipalities financial flexibility as they face staggering budgetary impacts of responding to the pandemic.

The first legislation focuses on length of service award programs intended to help recruit, retain and reward volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers for their service to the community. Similar to a pension program, volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers earn points by responding to calls, being on standby, and attending trainings. They need to tally 50 points in a given calendar year.

But safety precautions implemented during the COVID-19 response might limit a volunteer’s ability to amass points, with training sessions canceled and a limit placed on how many people may respond to a call. Volunteers were concerned the precautions could prevent them from earning the necessary number of LOSAP credits this year.

The bill, carried by Mr. Thiele in the Assembly and Senator Todd Kaminsky in the Senate, allows active volunteers to earn up to five points per month during the COVID-19 pandemic, and establishes a flexible and more equitable system by authorizing departments to determine emergency response requirements for certain LOSAP participants.

“Volunteer fire and ambulance workers have been rightfully lauded as some of the heroes of the COVID-19 outbreak. We must ensure that among their many sacrifices during this time, their LOSAP awards are not jeopardized,” the assemblyman said in a release announcing the legislation’s passage.

Southampton Village Board member Richard Yastrzemski is the commissioner of both the fire and ambulance departments in Southampton Village. He acknowledged that both the number of calls has diminished and the number of volunteers permitted to respond to calls has decreased due to the coronavirus outbreak. Meetings and trainings were curtailed drastically, he said. That could prohibit volunteers from accruing LOSAP points.

“I think the bill passing is great,” he said. “It recognizes volunteers are still on call, still ready to serve when called. That was never on quarantine.”

David Ryan, chief of the Montauk Fire department said, “It’s important they make this adjustment for us. Our members aren’t members for the LOSAP, they want to serve the community, but I’m sure they’ll be happy.”

The second bill seeks to address the COVID-19 public health crisis that has increased the financial burdens on local governments. It provides financial and budgetary flexibility to local governments, by extending the “rollover” period for bond anticipation notes issued in calendar years 2015 through 2021. Temporarily extending the rollover period by an additional two years for BANs would create another option for municipalities in a volatile market environment, and aid municipalities in managing future fiscal challenges emanating from the COVID-19 emergency.

The Legislature enacted similar extensions of the maximum maturity of BANs issued in calendar years 2004 and 2005, in response to the 2008-2009 economic downturn, and in calendar years 2007 and 2008, following Superstorm Sandy, Mr. Thiele explained.

Additionally, the bill gives local governments and school districts the ability to access their capital reserve funds without the need to comply with referendum requirements. It temporarily permits local governments and school districts to advance money from reserves to cover operating costs attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, the legislation extends the maximum time for repayment of an advance made from one fund of a municipal corporation to another fund, if the money is needed to cover COVID-19 costs.
Repayment to the fund can take place at the close of the following fiscal year. Prior to the passage of the legislation, the money had to be repaid within the same fiscal year.

In a release announcing the passage of the bill, Mr. Thiele said, “Local governments here on Long Island and across New York State are reeling from the financial devastation of COVID-19, both through substantial losses in revenue and through the tremendous cost of combating the virus, while still maintaining critical services. We must equip municipalities with every possible tool to continue to do so. As the Assembly Chair of the Local Governments Committee, I am proud to sponsor this legislation to provide our local governments with the flexibility they need to continue to effectively operate.”
Asked whether the bill could provide fiscal assistance in East Hampton, the town’s budget officer, Len Bernard, said, “It could. It allows us to stay in notes longer (rather than issue bonds at higher rates) and gives us a little more flexibility in moving money between funds.”

In Southampton Town, Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said, “This bill is helpful for financially strapped towns and villages that may have issues making payroll and meeting other obligations. Southampton doesn’t issue bond anticipation notes because we are able to meet cash flow. We typically don’t use interfund borrowing either. If we did, we likely would be able to return the funds by the end of the fiscal year. We are in a strong fiscal position and would not likely need the relief being offered, unless we see a serious falloff in revenue. Nonetheless, many municipalities may need these tools to weather the economic storm associated with the pandemic.”