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Regulatory confusion could put squeeze on volunteer firefighters

TALENT — Jackson County Fire District No. 5 and other county fire districts have changed their volunteer compensation practices in the face of confusing and sometimes contradictory federal and state regulations.

District 5 has moved to a reimbursement method for volunteers in place of the former compensation system following a recommendation from an Oregon Fire Chiefs Association task force, Chief Dan Marshall announced Tuesday at a District 5 board meeting.

"It's a true volunteer system without tying in performance," said Marshall.

The change took place Jan. 1.

Federal Department of Labor rules, IRS statutes, state Department of Revenue and Department of Labor regulations, Public Employee Retirement System requirements and other laws produce confusion, the task force determined.

Without changes, districts might find they have to pay PERS contributions, taxes for volunteer work or fines for violating laws. New federal Affordable Care Act rules may add another layer of complexity.

Volunteers seemed to be OK with the switch, said volunteer coordinator and Division Chief Darin Welburn. But going from receiving a check to no check may have an impact, he added.

"There will be some casualties," said Welburn. A couple of student volunteers left the program, likely because of changes in their own situations rather than the compensation practices, Welburn said.

He and others noted the current setup may be temporary as agencies work on issues of volunteer compensation.

"We told all our volunteers it's a moving target. It could all change," said Welburn. "We could come back to some type of compensation."

Evans Valley Fire District No. 6 now reimburses volunteers for mileage in place of a former field reimbursement system, said Fire Chief Bill Fuller. The district will step up to buy jackets for the volunteers and is talking about purchasing boots.

Jackson County Fire District No. 3 does not compensate volunteers for service, said Don Hickman. Personnel to explain current reimbursement methods were not available.

OFCA issued its Volunteer 360 Task Force Recommendations in November. A pure reimbursement method and a partial compensation method were suggested. The reimbursement method avoids the issuing of W-2 tax forms and associated responsibilities, the report noted.

The task force's work was designed to replace a governor's 2008 task force publication on volunteer compensation practices. That publication was pulled from circulation when conflicts became apparent.

About 30 volunteers serve District 5. The district's budget includes $50,000 for volunteers. That money was used for quarterly distributions to the volunteers using a points system based on alarm response, shift duty, training sessions and other activities by each firefighter.

The points program aimed to give volunteers about 20 percent of the amount that a regular employee would have received for similar services, said Marshall. The $50,000 now will be used for reimbursement.

Volunteers will receive 14 cents per mile when they use their cars for department-related activities.

Volunteers previously received a $50 allowance for boots required for the work, although they cost about $200 per pair, said Marshall. The volunteers will now receive full reimbursement.

Expenses for protective gear and uniforms would also be fully covered under the new system. In the past, volunteers usually received hand-me-downs, said Welburn.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.