Tax increase shines light on Woodstock Fire Commissioner’s election

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

Recruitment, retention and taxes are the main issues as two longtime department members vie for a seat on the Woodstock Fire District’s Board of Commissioners. Playing a role in the election is the district’s handling of a pension program for volunteers, for which retroactive payments played a large role in increasing the tax levy by more than 11 percent.

Incumbent Mike Lourenso is running against challenger Jeff DeLisio in the election (6 p.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday, December 12 at Fire Co. No. 1, 242 Tinker Street.)

Each commissioner has a five-year term on the five-member board which is responsible for the budget, training, purchase and maintenance of equipment. The only paid employees are the paramedics, clerical workers, secretary/treasurer and mechanic.

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This year, commissioners voted to increase taxes 11 percent to make back payments toward a small pension program for volunteers known as LOSAP, or the Length of Service Award Program.

The tax levy is estimated at $1,477,476, an increase of $149,604, or 11.27 percent over the current $1,327,872. Appropriations are $1,495,17.25, an increase of $141,104.25, or 10.42 percent over the current $1,354,072.

The contribution to LOSAP is proposed at $300,000, an increase of $140,000, or 87.5 percent over the current $160,000.

LOSAP pays $20 per month for each year of service up to 25 years, up to age 60, and capped at $500 per month. A recent rule change allowed members to continue to earn credit if they remained active past that age. The department was not made aware of the rule change and after discussion with the program’s administrator, commissioners voted to increase funding by $437,000 over several years to cover retroactive payments. Next year’s $140,000 payment is responsible for the tax increase.

DeLisio thinks the department should see if the administrator, Latham-based insurer Penflex Inc. is at least partly liable for the back payments since it is their responsibility to communicate rule changes. “When you have an administrator you need to take a hard look at them. Take them to task,” he said.

On LOSAP, Lourenso said he brought the situation to the attention of the department because he felt cutting off benefits at age 60 was age discrimination. “I told them eventually this is going to bite us,” he said.

Unlike other departments in the state faced with the same rule change, Woodstock was unable to get eligible members to sign waivers relinquishing retroactive benefits.

Unlike DeLisio, Lourenso is hesitant to blame the department’s contracted LOSAP administrator for the oversight.

DeLisio, a 35-year member who serves with Company 4, works for a Micro Focus, a computer software company. He is also president of the Woodstock Golf Club.

“I want to be out there to be the guy who brings everything back together,” DeLisio said. “Things have gotten a little disparate. I want to bring unity and cohesiveness back to the department like we had when I was 18 years old.”

DeLisio also noted the department needs to better communicate with taxpayers, something that is a growing concern as the budget escalates each year. “My goal is to get as many voters out as possible. If you don’t vote, don’t whine,” he said.

The department also needs to take a hard look at how tax money is spent, he said, noting there are state grants that should be pursued instead of relying primarily on taxes.

Economics, coupled with a population consisting of a large percentage of weekenders, has made it hard to recruit and keep a sufficient number of volunteers. That’s something both candidates are trying to change. “Trying to get new, young blood has become very tough,” DeLisio said. Training requirements have changed over the years, making the time commitment difficult for many while trying to support a family.

“I’m hoping to bring some new ideas, interest and energy,” he said. He hopes to spread the word that there are ways to help the department that don’t require as much time.

“You can drive the ambulance, which doesn’t necessitate the training of an interior attack. There’s administrative help too,” DeLisio said.

Some departments have resorted to hiring a core staff of firefighters, something Woodstock is trying to avoid. Taxes would rise significantly and, as DeLisio notes, it would reduce community involvement in things like blood drives, the Easter egg hunt, fireworks and even the volunteer fire police, who help direct traffic.

“The community needs to realize they own it,” DeLisio said of the fire department.

Lourenso, who has been with the department nearly 30 years, served as a first lieutenant for Company 2 and is a certified first responder for the Rescue Squad, also known as Company 5. He was inspired to join the department when the Rescue Squad assisted him with a grandchild who had stopped breathing.

Lourenso, a retired NYPD detective squad sergeant, is a certified fire police officer, teaches an AARP driver safety course sponsored by the Woodstock Public Library, is president of the Good Neighbor Food Pantry and teaches CPR and first aid for the American Red Cross. He also teaches the emergency vehicle operator course required to drive an ambulance for the rescue squad. He is running for his third term on the board.

Lourenso agrees recruitment and retention are problems, but that they affect volunteer fire departments across the country.

“We’ve got everything manned right now, but that’s an ongoing situation.” Like DeLisio, he wants to do everything possible to avoid transitioning to a paid department.

“Retention is very important to us,” he said. While the department has no control over county training schedules for firefighters, it does what it can to keep satisfaction high by providing the best equipment possible.

Lourenso said he supports keeping taxes down as much as possible by minimizing new truck purchases.

Other departments frequently buy new trucks while Woodstock refurbishes theirs as much as possible through such efforts as putting a serviceable body on a new truck chassis, he said.

Voting is December 12 from 6-9 p.m. at Woodstock Fire Company 1, 242 Tinker Street, Woodstock.

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