IRS plan could muddle volunteer firefighters and rural response

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Posted: Dec 16, 2013 5:00 AM
IRS plan could muddle volunteer firefighters and rural response
BURNING QUESTIONS: Several Kansas city managers say a pending IRS decision wouldn't derail volunteer fire departments, but could cause problems with rural response agreements.

BURNING QUESTIONS: Several Kansas city managers say a pending IRS decision wouldn’t derail volunteer fire departments, but could cause problems with rural response agreements.

By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog

OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — Following the Chicken Little-esque response surrounding recent revelations that the Internal Revenue Service could count volunteer firefighters as employees, a pair of Kansas communities say everybody should just calm down.

The sky, in fact, is not falling.

Pennsylvania’s U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican, was among the first to sound the alarm last week, decrying that a potential decision by the IRS could have long-lasting ramifications on fire departments across the country. At issue for the IRS is whether volunteer firefighters and other emergency responders should count as employees.

Nationwide, 71 percent of all U.S. fire departments are staffed exclusively by volunteers, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. In Kansas, it’s almost 79 percent.

Such a decision would make them eligible for health care coverage through their municipal employer, following terms laid out in Obamacare requiring entities with 50 or more employees to provide health insurance.

A pair of Sunflower State city managers told Kansas Watchdog they can imagine a few scenarios where the provision could prove problematic, but it’s a stretch. Key to this discussion is Obamacare’s 30-hour per week minimum threshold for an employee to receive mandated health coverage.

Even in a nearly-all volunteer department, like that in the small town of Osawatomie, few of the municipality’s 27 firefighters will ever hit that mark, said city manager Don Cawby.

“It would have to be a pretty bad year,” Cawby said, for volunteer responders to average those kind of qualifying hours.

Matt Allen, city manager for the western Kansas community of Garden City, offered a similar sentiment. At more than 26,000 residents, Garden City is about five times larger than Osawatomie and utilizes a mix of professional and volunteer firefighters to staff its department. Allen said it would take a disaster of catastrophic proportions — like a multi-day downtown blaze — to push the city’s volunteer responders into qualifying for coverage under Obamacare.

It’s unlikely, Allen said, but “you never say never.”

“Hypothetically, if there were something that would have an adverse impact on us having volunteers, we’d just discontinue the volunteer service,” Allen added.

Still, this probably isn’t it.

Rather than destroying small-town fire departments, Cawby said it’s more likely to muddle local agreements for responding to rural emergencies. When Osawatomie crews respond to calls outside the city limits, the Miami County government reimburses the city for the associated cost. While the hours are outside the municipality, Cawby said the federal government may not see it that way. It’s one of the more realistic scenarios that could push a volunteer closer to 30 hours.

“From the IRS’ standpoint, or anyone else, the W2 is coming from us,” Cawby said. “What it probably will do is have people look at their departments and how they coordinate with rural fire.”

In this instance, the term “volunteer” is a bit of a misnomer, as Osawatomie’s firefighters do receive minor compensation. Cawby said volunteer firefighters earn about $25 per call, which accounts for about four hours of response time. For any time beyond that, the firefighters earn minimum wage, but Cawby said people don’t do it for the money.

Cawby added that, if volunteer firefighters are suddenly considered employees, what about other community volunteers?

“Where does it stop?” he said.

Contact Travis Perry at travis@kansaswatchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter at @muckraker62. Like Watchdog.org? Click HERE to get breaking news alerts in YOUR state!

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