The Woodstock Fire Department is fighting its own fire in the form of an underfunded retirement program for volunteers that it is scrambling to fix. The department contributes to a program called the Length Of Service Awards Program, or LOSAP, that allows volunteers to collect $20 per month for each year of service, up to 25 years, once they turn 62. The department hadn’t kept up with recent rule changes, denying some members credit for years served.
“The Board is immediately taking action to find a solution which will bring it into compliance,” said Trevor Paton, chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners.
“The Board is committed to keeping this program intact for the volunteers of this Department and for all future generations of volunteers who are committed to keeping the community safe from harm all hours of the day and night.”
LOSAP was enacted in 1988 to help counteract a serious decline in volunteers statewide, offering an incentive for new members to join and current ones to stay. Paton believes Woodstock adopted the program by referendum 15-20 years ago.
To get credit for a year, volunteers must earn 50 points through a variety of tasks such as fire calls, regular drills and training, Paton explained. Volunteers can accrue points for up to 25 years. At $20 per year each month, the benefit has a maximum of $500 per month.
Under an old interpretation of the legislation, volunteers could not earn credit past age 62, even if they hadn’t racked up 25 years of service. That ran afoul of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because of age discrimination and volunteers across the state complained.
Latham-based insurer Penflex Inc. administers LOSAP for Woodstock and other fire departments across the state. With about 40 department members in attendance, Penflex President and Actuary Edward Holohan recently came to answer questions for the board and provide guidance to correct the situation. While volunteers in other departments have signed waivers just to move forward, Holohan suggested fixing the problem before the EEOC gets involved to avoid any litigation. Penflex will help the department review records to determine who is entitled to retroactive credit and extent of the financial impact, Paton said.
Holohan told the commissioners that program administrators gave cost estimates to the state legislature to fix the coverage gap, but nothing was done so it was left to individual departments. Holohan believes the intent of the law is to encourage people to become active members no matter their age.
Holohan’s worst-case scenario for Woodstock is $150,000-$350,000 in retroactive payments, which might need $25,000 to $50,000 per year for 10 years to get current. Paton said 10 members may be due credit or retroactive payments, but that figure won’t be known until the department starts the daunting task of poring through records.
“We want to follow the law,” Paton said. “We also want to do right by the volunteers.”
Any financial impact may be lessened if eligible members come forward and sign waivers.
The issue comes at a time when the department is struggling to attract new volunteers. A new committee was formed recently to come up with creative ways to increase its roster. Younger families don’t have as much free time since they must often earn two paychecks to support their family.
Those interested in volunteering may contact the department at 845-679-9922 or visiting headquarters at 242 Tinker Street.
Paton said the matter may come up for discussion at the next commissioners’ meeting April 14. “It’s a deep investigation, so it’s not something that’s going to be cleared up soon.” he said.