AUGUSTA — Hoping to grow the ranks of Maine’s volunteer fire departments, lawmakers are contemplating a bill that would add 5 percent to the sales tax on consumer fireworks.

Sales tax on fireworks would be 10 percent instead of the standard 5 percent for retail sales.

The new revenue would be used to create a pension fund for volunteer firefighters who put in at least 20 years of service to their communities.

The bill, LD 1154, sponsored by Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, aims to address a troublesome trend in rural Maine, according to Jeff Maker, a Calais volunteer fireman and the treasurer of the Maine State Federation of Firefighters.

The bill was heard before the Legislature’s Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee on Wednesday.

The federation represents more than 7,000 volunteer and full-time firefighters in Maine, Jeff Maker said.

Maine, like the rest of the U.S., is facing a steady erosion in the ranks of volunteers. Maker said total volunteer forces in Maine have decreased from about 12,000 to between 9,000 and 10,000 over the past two decades.

“Current-day economic and societal demands are competing for the call and volunteers’ available volunteer time,” he said. “Family duties at home, multiple jobs to maintain a living wage, a living standard, all take away from time.”

Michael Azevedo, chief of the Carmel Fire and Rescue, was more blunt in his assessment of the declining numbers of volunteers and what it could mean.

“I don’t have the people to fill the equipment and gear that I have,” he told the committee. “That’s a common problem in our mutual-aid district.”

Azevedo said two years ago he had to sit down with his town’s Board of Selectmen and give them some disturbing news.

“I can no longer guarantee you a response if someone dials 911,” Azevedo said. “I can’t do it. I can’t promise you they are going to show up.”

Of his 28-person roster, he said he can regularly count on 12 people to show up on a call. The increasing demands of work and family have made volunteering at the community level a lower priority for most people.

Azevedo said he did not know whether the pension fund would be a huge help in recruiting and keeping volunteers, but it would be a help.

If approved, the bill would set up a system that would create a base amount that firefighters would receive after 20 years of service. It would also be set so they could contribute to their own retirement funds, much like a 401(k) retirement package, said Edward Holohan, an actuary who testified in favor of the bill.

Holohan said the program wasn’t technically a pension, and the payment most volunteers would receive on retirement would be based on contributions. Those who only took the base amount and made no additional contributions would get a relatively small amount upon retirement. Holohan did not say how much that would be. He said the approach was innovative and one he had been working on with the firefighter groups.

Testifying against the measure was the Maine Municipal Association. Geoff Herman,  a lobbyist for the association, said the group’s policy committee voted to oppose the bill because it treated one group of workers differently from another by providing them with an additional benefit.

Herman said from the employers’ perspective it was important that a benefit package was integrated with all of the employees of a municipality.

“It doesn’t work when some employees are treated in a different way than others from a compensation standpoint,” Herman said. “It works against that interest of the employer toward having an even-handed approach to benefits.”

He said the other concern for municipalities was that state-run pension programs often turn into municipal-run pension programs when the state abandons them because of costs. He cited as an example the proposal in Gov. Paul LePage’s budget to push more of the pension costs for teachers onto local towns and school districts. 

“Systems that are managed and created, not by the employer but by a third party, are problematic from the municipal perspective,” Herman said.

At least one firefighter noted that volunteers are not full-time, paid employees and the wages they receive were relatively low compared to a full-time teacher’s salary.

“I pay my firefighters $7.50 an hour,” said Chief Joe Guyotte of the Dover-Foxcroft Fire Department. “I get $10 an hour; I’m the highest-paid officer on the department.”

Guyotte said he had 36 people on the roster, but if a fire gets toned out during the day he will have three people there. He said the retirement incentive could help.

“It might, might give a little bit of incentive to say, ‘Twenty years down the road, 20 years you’ve been a firefighter, we are going to give you something,'” Guyotte said. “Not much, but it’s just another retention tool to keep a full roster.”

The bill will come back to the committee for a work session later this month.

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