Accounting for Fire Departments in Congress

As we approach the end of 2019, Congress steadily is coming up on that time of year when large legislative packages start coming together. It’s becoming increasingly likely that Congress will address several tax priorities this winter. This presents a valuable opportunity to gain the traction needed to have Congress pass two of the IAFC’s top tax priorities: fire sprinkler incentives and protecting volunteer firefighters and EMTs from burdensome tax rules. Your help is needed to contact your members of Congress and urge them to include fire sprinklers and volunteer tax protections in any tax package that Congress will pass this year.

Incentivizing Fire Sprinklers 

Anyone who has seen fires in sprinklered and non-sprinklered buildings easily can understand the importance of fire sprinklers. In 2017, Congress passed legislation which made many significant changes to the tax code – two of which were to create new incentives for fire sprinkler retrofit installations. The first new incentive was to classify fire sprinkler systems as an eligible Section 179 deduction. This meant that small business owners could deduct the cost of a fire sprinkler retrofit installation from their taxes. This was a historic win for the fire service and will make it easier to get fire sprinklers in every restaurant, bar, and nightclub across the country.  
 
The second incentive that Congress intended to create would have accelerated the depreciation schedule for fire sprinkler retrofit installations in commercial buildings from 38 years to 15 years. Since very few companies hold their buildings for 38 years, this change could motivate owners of large commercial buildings to invest in the safety of their buildings. Unfortunately, an unintentional drafting error in the bill prevented this change from taking place. 
 
The IAFC is working with a diverse coalition of businesses, property owners, restaurants, and more to fix this drafting error. The Restoring Investment in Improvement Act (H.R. 1869/S. 803) would correct this technical drafting error and is both cost-neutral and strongly bipartisan. The RIIA has been cosponsored by nearly half of both the House and Senate. However, we need help from IAFC members to keep this bill on Congress’ radar and urge them to include it in their next package of tax bills.   

Protecting Incentives for Fire/EMS Volunteers 

 Volunteer and combination fire departments, as well as individual volunteers, struggle to comply with the tax code that requires that all incentives for volunteers be reported on a Form W-2 and that payroll taxes are completed by the fire department. 

Congress provided a brief reprieve in 2007 when legislation was passed to exempt property tax-based incentives and up to $360 per year in other incentives from being considered taxable income. Sadly, Congress allowed this tax protection to expire in 2010. 
 
Several members of Congress including Rep. John Larson (D-CT), Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), introduced the Volunteer Responder Incentive Protection Act of 2019 (VRIPA; H.R. 1241/S. 1210) which would permanently restore the tax protection that Congress allowed to expire in 2010 and would increase the amount of incentives protected to $600 per year as well as all property tax-based incentives. 
 
Earlier this summer, the House included a one-year version of VRIPA in a package of retirement-related bills named the SECURE Act (H.R. 1994). While the IAFC continues to urge Congress to pass the full VRIPA, the SECURE Act would provide one year of tax relief and protection to fire departments with volunteer staffing. The House passed the SECURE Act on a nearly unanimous basis; however, the package has stalled in the Senate. Help is needed from all-volunteer and combination fire chiefs to urge the Senate to pass the SECURE Act this year and then take up the full VRIPA in 2020. 

How To Lobby Congress 

The fastest and easiest way to highlight the need for Congressional action on these issues is to contact your members of Congress by email. The IAFC’s Online Advocacy Center has pre-written letters that you can send to your representative and senators. All you need to do is enter your name and address and then hit send. In a matter of seconds, you will have weighed in with your members of Congress. The IAFC Online Advocacy Center is open to both members and non-members, so feel free to share these campaigns on your social media platforms. 
 
If you’d like to go further, download the IAFC’s Hot Sheet and Issue Discussion which provide background information and talking points on policy issues facing the fire and emergency service. Using this information and your own experience, you can highlight the needs of both your fire department and the fire and emergency service to your members of Congress and their staffs. Anyone needing assistance in contacting their members of Congress is welcome to contact the IAFC Government Relations and Policy Department.  
 
We’re at a critical point for getting key legislation passed to support volunteers in the fire service as well as incentivizing fire sprinkler retrofit installations. Your voice is needed to help us cross the finish line. Take a moment to urge your members of Congress to act now and get these bills passed before Congress recesses in December.

Evan Davis is a strategic manager in the government relations department at the IAFC

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