A pension bill for volunteer firefighters, EMTs, and first responders is signed into law
A bill that restores funding meant to support and incentivize critical emergency service volunteerism has been signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon. It allocates several million dollars to the Volunteer Firefighter Pension Fund, which also provides retirement benefits to other emergency service volunteers. The pension fund is slated to be made whole in the coming years.
Sponsored by Rep. Sandy Newsome (R-Cody), House Bill 118 was the brainchild of H.R. Coe, a longtime firefighter and son of the late state Sen. Hank Coe, who served in the legislature from 1989-2020 from Park County. It passed the House on a 48-14 vote on Feb. 8 and the Senate on a 27-2-1-0-1 vote on Feb. 17.
“We must take care of the people who are putting their lives on the line every day to help keep our communities safe,” Newsome said in a press release. “This law is important for the safety of our communities now and will help with needed recruitment and retention efforts in the future. I am pleased the Legislature was able to deliver on securing funding for this critical effort.”
The bill clarifies how the gross premium tax on fire insurance premiums between emergency volunteers’ pension accounts and a reserve legislative account are to be distributed. This includes up to 100 percent of the gross premium tax to be deposited into the emergency volunteers’ pension account. Forty percent of the gross premium tax will be deposited in the Fire A legislative reserve account.
It also allocates $9 million in additional funding from the general fund into the pension account.
There was debate as to how much should be placed in this account. A House amendment called for $4.5 million to be allocated to it. A Senate amendment attached the $9 million figure, which was adopted by a conference committee after it failed on a 31-31 concurrence vote in the House on Feb. 21. The bill was then passed on a 40-21-1 roll call vote after being rescinded on Feb. 22 before heading to the governor.
“We have to take care of our volunteers, the volunteer firefighters, the EMTs, search and rescue,” said Rep. Clarence Styvar (R-Cheyenne). “Volunteerism in this state is going down. If we shore this up, hopefully we can get more volunteers.”
There are approximately 2,300 active volunteer firefighters statewide with around 1,600 retired volunteers that are receiving benefits. The Volunteer Firefighter Pension Fund was initially created in 1967 as an account to provide funds for retired firefighters. In 2015, EMTs were added to it by merging the Volunteer EMT Pension Fund with the Volunteer Firefighter Pension Fund, creating the combined Volunteer Firefighter and EMT Pension Fund. Retired county search and rescue personnel were added in 2019, according to Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Cheyenne).
Additional pay for overtime was added, as were more benefits when the fund was expanded to include EMTs and search and rescue personnel. Around this time, the state took funds from the fire insurance premium account, which are funds paid by insurance companies to do business in Wyoming. The funds that come in from this fund range from $4.5 million to $5 million to pay out benefits. The contributions from the 2,300 active volunteer firefighters add about another $1 million to it. The average monthly payout is around $385 for those with 20 years of experience. Volunteer firefighters and EMTs currently pay $18.50 per month into the funds, which rises to $37.50 per month for search and rescue due to a different pay-out structure and how benefits are awarded, he added.
The Fire A account saw premiums that were reduced to 60 percent from 100 percent, where they currently stand.
“As soon as this count reaches 107 percent of funding [per the rules of the account], then it's going to go down to 60 percent,” Nicholas said. “This 60 percent is going to happen no matter what, so the only question is how quickly we're going to get to 107 percent. If we put in $12 million, or $9 million, it's going to happen a little faster. If we put in $4.5 million dollars, it's going to happen a little slower. If we do nothing, it's still going to happen.”
The volunteer account is solvent, since it’s funded at the higher 80 percent range, according to Rep. Tom Walters (R-Casper).
“Currently, in terms of being fully funded, as you can see, it will be fully funded by 2029 under the status quo without this bill in place,” he said. “With this bill in place, you can get it down to 2025, so we're talking about four years difference. And this was really part of a compromise that we made last year where everybody in the firefighting system said we're willing to pitch in and make sure we can stabilize that Fire A system. And now a year later, we're coming back and saying, ‘Well, some of the folks decided they didn't like their part of the compromise.’ And so, they want to change their part of the compromise.”
Newsome stated it was a good idea to add more funds to the account due there being more available in the general fund.
“Last year, [we] decided that we would take $9 million from the volunteer firefighter fund to shore up Fire A, which is the paid firefighter retirement fund,” Newsome said. “We took money from the volunteers [account] and put it into the paid account. That's the simple explanation of what happened. What I'm asking is that we maintain that $9 million that we took from the volunteer fund to replace it, and especially since we have a little extra money at this point in time.”
Gordon signed the bill into law on Feb. 28. It will go into effect July 1.