Belleville News-Democrat

Volunteer fire department chiefs have a battle on their hands that doesn’t involve burning homes or car crashes.

They face a shortage of new recruits and trouble retaining experienced volunteers.

In an effort to bolster the ranks of volunteer firefighters and Emergency Medical Service workers, state lawmakers have proposed a bill that would give volunteers a $500 tax credit on their Illinois income tax return.

State Sen. Christopher Belt, D- Swansea, said if the bill is approved, it could cost the state an estimated $20 million to $22 million in lost revenue but he said that sacrifice is worthwhile.

"I will argue that what it costs upfront pales in comparison to the lives that are lost … without volunteer fighters, without EMS," Belt said in a news conference Friday at the Signal Hill Fire Department near the west side of Belleville.

Belt is the sponsor of the bill in the Illinois Senate, which has approved the proposal 51-0.

State Rep. Katie Stuart, D- Edwardsville, is a co-sponsor of the bill in the state House of Representatives, where she is pushing to get a vote on the plan before the General Assembly session is scheduled to end on April 8.

"They’re risking their own safety to keep our communities safe and we all appreciate their work for our families," Stuart said of the volunteers. "Hopefully we can continue to attract more people into fire service on a volunteer basis and recognize the important work that they do."

  • A volunteer must serve at least nine months a year and cannot earn more than $10,000 a year for their volunteer services during the taxable year.
  • The credit cannot reduce a taxpayer’s liability to less than zero.
  • If the tax credit exceeds the tax liability for the year, the excess may be applied within the next five taxable years.

Signal Hill Fire Chief Tom Elliff said he appreciates the work being done by the local lawmakers on this idea to recruit and retain volunteers.

"We’re seeing a shortage of volunteers not only in this fire department but in communities in general," Elliff said.

He noted that a department may have a satisfactory number of volunteers but a neighboring department may not have enough to provide mutual aid or serve as a backup in a community where firefighters are on a call.

Elliff, who is president of the St. Clair/Monroe County Fire Chiefs Association, said the proposed $500 tax break could help departments attract new volunteers but also provide an incentive to retain volunteers who have served for five or so years and have gained valuable experience.

"The thing with volunteer fire service is that you can’t necessarily have too many because you’re depending on their schedules," he said.

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March 20, 2022 at 10:39PM