Volunteerism is alive and well in Ulster County, but we face major challenges in the years ahead if we are to sustain key services in our communities.

In a recently published Benjamin Center Discussion Brief on The Who-What-Where-When-Why of Volunteerism in Ulster County we report that nearly half (45 percent) of adult Ulster County residents volunteer, twenty points higher than the national rate. In the context of falling national rates, the reasons for this breadth of volunteerism in our home county are documented with the use of national and local survey data, and are further explored and informed through interviews with nineteen leaders in volunteer-reliant organizations.

However, the degree to which we will be able to provide and supplement services with volunteers is a growing concern, especially given the size of the burden if we were to pay for them with tax dollars. In light of our robust volunteer engagement here, my co-author, Sue Books, a professor in the SUNY New Paltz School of Education, and I take up the questions of reliance and cost: how much is achievable — and even desirable — through volunteerism?

Consider one illustrative example: about one in ten (11 percent) Ulster County volunteers report that their unpaid activities are in the public safety realm, compared with only one percent nationally. Given our reliance on volunteerism for such life-saving activities, we need to consider the degree to which we should continue to rely on volunteer emergency response efforts instead of tax-based funding, and whether we will in fact to be able to do so in the years ahead.

We rely heavily upon volunteer firefighters not just in our county but across our state: only about one in ten of our fire departments statewide have paid firefighters. A 2015 study conducted by the Firemen’s Association of New York State estimates that converting from volunteer to paid career firefighting staff would cost $3.87 billion statewide, representing a 26.5 percent tax bill increase for property owners. This same study estimates that in Ulster County a transition to an all paid workforce would require 720 paid firefighters at a total annual cost of approximately $71 million. Moreover, adding the additional requisite investment in structures, vehicles, and equipment will have an estimated price tag of $142 million. Job creation associated with that kind of public investment would reap economic benefits to individual firefighters and to the region as a whole, but the costs would be borne by taxpayers: the estimated property tax increase would be 40.1 percent for Ulster County property owners.

Right here in our campus community all of our firefighters are volunteers. We asked our New Paltz Town Supervisor Neil Bettez and Village Mayor Tim Rogers to estimate the fiscal impacts of a transition to a paid fire service. In line with the Fireman’s Association’s numbers, they estimated that the combined budget impact would be about $4 million, with a resulting hike in the average town tax bill for New Paltz property owners of approximately 30 percent.

Reflecting a statewide pattern, despite our high overall rate of volunteerism in the county, most fire departments continue to experience a slow and steady drop in recruitment and retention. This reflects a statewide trend. In the late 1990s about 110,000 firefighters volunteered in New York State; ten years later, the number had dropped to about 84,500. “This is not a problem you can isolate. It’s not just this or that company or just rural departments,” said John D’Allessandro of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York. “It can vary from department to department in the same area. But we know that, statewide, the trends are going the wrong way.” In Ulster County, the pool of prospective volunteers is dwindling in part because the region is increasingly attracting seasonal residents who may not have deep roots in the community, suggested Scott Schulte, a fire investigator in Ulster County, associate director of fire safety at SUNY New Paltz, and retired volunteer firefighter (after 20 years).

The New York State Firemen’s Association annual survey of the state’s 1,800 departments has further documented this trend. Whereas about 25,000 new firefighters have volunteered in New York over the last five years, many also have left because they retired, they became disillusioned, or their lives became too complicated, D’Allessandro said, “It’s a zero sum game, if six people come in the front door, but nine leave out the back…” Unfortunately, the details about the departures have not been systematically tracked.

Given this milieu, we conclude that we must find a way to agree on what we need and want to do together and then to collaboratively attend to the costs. Surely this is neither a simple question nor one for which one size fits all. Surely, too, it is a question that will become more pressing in the months and years ahead. Financially strapped governments must seek to answer it with systematic study, but also with communal commitment and effective action.

If you would like to learn more about our paper, or about volunteerism in general, UlsterCorps’ Eighth Annual Service Summit will bring together community leaders from the nonprofit, business, higher education and governmental sectors to address Volunteerism Now – positive models to help engage, sustain and grow community today. The program will include a presentation of our Benjamin Center paper on volunteerism in Ulster County, as well as feature presentations and a panel discussion of successful case studies, new models, and best practices. As always it will feature roundtable discussions giving all attendees an opportunity to participate and network.

The summit, hosted by The Benjamin Center, is free to participants as part of the on-going work of UlsterCorps to deepen the knowledge about volunteerism and to find ways to strengthen a culture of service and collaboration in Ulster County. A locally-sourced, healthy breakfast will be available to participants. Registration is limited to the first 70 respondents. Please email to RSVP to register@ulstercorps.org or call/text 845-481-0331.