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Bills intended to help volunteer fire departments

Robert Houk • Mar 3, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Washington County officials are keeping their eyes on two bills in the state General Assembly they say could help local volunteer fire departments meet funding and staffing needs.

One is HB0298, sponsored by state Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, which would allow a county government to employ paid firefighters to help staff volunteer fire departments, while not creating a countywide fire department under current state law.

As introduced, the bill says “a county legislative body may employ up to two full-time paid firefighters to staff each volunteer fire department within the county.”

The legislation specifies the paid firefighter is a “county employee for all purposes, except for the provision of health and retirement benefits.” In that regard, the state woud pick up the employer’s portion of the firefighter’s group health insurance cost.

The bill also specifies the county firefighter would be eligible to participate in the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, with the state picking up the “entire employer contribution.”

Hill said his bill, which is being sponsored by state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, in the Senate, is designed to “continue the conversation” between state lawmakers and volunteer firefighters.

“This legislation is a potential solution that could help us recruit additional volunteer firefighters to address the needs of our growing region,” Hill said 

Another piece of volunteer firefighting legislation being watched by county officials is HB0518, filed by Hill’s younger brother — state Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville — to create a state grant to help VFDs buy equipment and cover matching federal grants. Hill said his legislation would create a program managed by the commissioner of the state Department of Commerce and Insurance to award grants to VFDs to purchase equipment or to meet the 10 percent local match requirements for federal grants.

“The end result would be increased training and equipment to the 524 VFDs across the state at no local cost,” Hill said.

The bill failed earlier this year in a House subcommittee for a lack of a second, but Hill said additional work on a funding mechanism for the legislation will soon earn it a new hearing.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said both bills “have merit,” and could be “useful tools” for local volunteer fire departments. He said he is particularly interested in Timothy Hill’s legislation that would help VFDs come up with the local financial match for grants they often have a difficult time covering.

Because both bills apply to all 95 Tennessee counties, Grandy said that could mean a hefty price tag for state government.

“We’ll have wait on the fiscal notes for these bills,” Grandy said. “We’ll see where these bills are going, but helping volunteer fire departments is high on my list.”

Washington County Commission Chairman Greg Matherly said dealing with daytime staffing problems at VFDs has been something the county has struggled with in recent years. Matherly said one question he and his colleagues will want to see answered is: Who does a paid firefighter employed by the county answer to in a volunteer fire department?

“There are a lot of mechanics that will need to be answered, but I think county commissioners will be glad to look at it,” he said of the legislation.

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