Conn. councilman proposes tax abatement to retain volunteer firefighters

Danbury City Councilman Frank Salvatore Jr. advocated the tax break as some of the city's companies consolidate due to a shortage of volunteers


Julia Perkins
The News-Times, Danbury, Conn.

DANBURY, Conn. — When Frank Salvatore Jr. became a volunteer fireman in the 1980s, he simply had to get a physical from a doctor.

That night, he battled a structure fire on Moss Avenue.

But training and other requirements have increased for local firefighters, and they need a better incentive to join and stick with the volunteer companies, he said.

Salvatore, a Democrat on Danbury City Council, is advocating for the city to give volunteer firefighters a tax break.

"With all these requirements, it's harder to train these people and keep them," he said. "This tax abatement idea has always been an idea of how to help recruit and retain the volunteer fire service because they are an integral part of the Danbury Fire Department."

His proposal would exclude elected officials like himself from getting the tax break.

City Council created an ad hoc committee to look at the issue in 2007, but that committee never recommended an ordinance to the full council, Salvatore said.

Mayor Joe Cavo said he is open to the idea and plans to re-appoint members to that committee and others that have fallen by the wayside.

"People [volunteer firefighters] do spend time away from their families and their homes," he said. "They give that time to their community and it's a wonderful thing, so I'm not opposed to looking at this."

But he said he is concerned the abatement "takes away a bit of the volunteerism." It will also be tricky to figure out which volunteers would be eligible, he said.

"The challenge I see and — I think this was the challenge the committee saw back in 2007 — is that there is a management issue of it," Cavo said.

Some of the city's 12 companies are consolidating due to a shortage of volunteers. Danbury has 80 to 100 volunteer firefighters, on top of the career department, in the city, said Charlie Coakley, president of the Danbury Volunteer Firemen's Council.

The abatement program could add to that number, he said.

"I'd like to see an additional 30 or 40 volunteers," said Coakley, who became a volunteer firefighter in 1977. "If we could, we'd like to be able to have some kind of recruitment to be able to add to the ranks."

The volunteers contribute many hours to fighting fires with the career department, fundraising for local causes, and assisting during wind and snowstorms, Coakley said.

"A lot of these guys are doing full-time jobs," he said. "This is all done on their own spare time."

The volunteers must meet physical requirements and be certified annually, Salvatore said. They complete quarterly training sessions with the career department and weekly sessions with their own companies, Coakley said. The city covers these costs, he said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the volunteers helped staff the Danbury War Memorial when homeless individuals stayed there for a brief period of time, Coakley said. Salvatore noted the volunteer companies organized birthday and other parades to bring residents "some semblance of normalcy."

"They really rose to the occasion," Salvatore said.

The state passed a law that went into effect in 1999 that allowed towns to create abatement programs for volunteers like this. A bill proposed this legislative session calls for increasing the property tax exemption for certain municipal volunteers to $2,000.

Communities such as Greenwich and Monroe, have abatement programs, where varying amounts are taken off volunteers' taxes. Redding is considering increasing its abatement from $1,000 to $2,000.

Danbury would need to determine how much to abate.

"We have to be fiscally responsible," Salvatore said. "You can't vote in the highest tax abatement on year one. You've got to grade it in."

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(c)2021 The News-Times (Danbury, Conn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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