Friday, September 12, 2008

9/11 and Community Service

Yesterday Barack Obama and John McCain discussed community service and the importance of showing respect to the victims of 9/11 by contributing to one's country and communities (see here). This is a very important issue and one worthy of much greater public attention and debate.

So I thought it appropriate to reproduce the opinion piece I was commissioned to write for Newsday back in the spring of 2005. Many reactions I received from that article raised issues that arise in this current debate. For example, many readers felt that my comparison of the contribution of volunteer firefighters with literacy volunteers was unfair. I also received a letter from an irritated fire chief who expressed the opinion that I keep my philosophizing to myself! Well, now that the nominees for President have helped spur a civil discourse about the importance of community service, hopefully that will address the kinds of concerns I raise in the article. Yet I fear many are still missing the real meaning of "community service", for if they did they would strongly resist bill's like this one in Pennsylvania.


Rewards, yes, but tax breaks, no
[published in Newsday, May 1st 2005]

By Colin Farrelly

Emergency personnel provide an essential public service, and many risk the ultimate sacrifice — their own safety. In the aftermath of 9/11, gratitude for the heroism and dedication of these workers has inspired support for tax relief for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers around the United States.

Legislation is now being proposed in Rockland County, for example, that would allow such volunteer workers to shop tax-free. “Any kind of incentive you can give the volunteers is a good thing,” the bill’s sponsor has said.

For Long Island, in 2004 Gov. George Pataki signed into law legislation that increased the property exemption benefit on the homes of eligible Suffolk fire and ambulance volunteers. They are permitted a 10- percent exemption on the assessed value of a home, rather than the previous cap of $3,000. Yet, in February, the Harborfields Central School Board decided not to grant the tax exemption to volunteer firefighters in the fire departments of Greenlawn and Centerport. The board wrote that it appreciates the service of the volunteers, but that the exemption would result in $52,271 “that would have to be borne by others in the community.”

Given the different stance that localities have taken on this issue, it is worthwhile to consider the question: Are tax breaks for volunteer emergency workers appropriate and fair? A proponent of tax relief might argue: "These volunteers make enormous sacrifices- they literally risk their lives- and giving them a tax break is a way of expressing our public gratitude for their sacrifices." No one would argue that these volunteers aren’t making a substantial contribution. But are tax breaks an appropriate form of recognition?

We admire volunteer firefighters and emergency workers because their actions go over and above a citizen’s call of duty. Some kind of public recognition is no doubt required. But monetary compensation, in the form of tax breaks, is arguably inappropriate and potentially unfair. The satisfaction of contributing without pay is part of the reason this work is rewarding for many volunteers. To offer what is effectively a salary is to reduce the most admirable characteristic of humans (benevolence) to the impoverished measure of value that already consumes society- money. The more significant the tax break is for such volunteer work the less it can plausibly be described as "volunteer" and the less prestige in the community this work will have.

Perhaps more important, the problem with granting such tax breaks is that such policies could potentially exacerbate existing injustices. The Harborfields school board clearly is concerned with this question: How will localities make up the loss in public revenue? This leads to more questions: Will extra tax-burdens be placed on citizens? If so, will this be done in a fair manner so the extra burden does not fall on those who already suffer economic hardships? If taxes will not be raised, then what will localities be willing to cut in order to offset the loss of public revenue?

It is one thing to say you support tax relief for volunteer emergency workers, but it is hypocritical to do so if you are not willing to subsidize such tax breaks out of your own pocket. To be fair across the board, tax breaks for volunteers must be made in conjunction with higher taxes on the more affluent, so that the rewards for volunteers do not also inflict unfair burdens on the vulnerable.

There are, of course, other possible arguments that are used to support tax breaks for volunteer emergency workers. Some make a pragmatic case that such tax breaks could help bolster lagging recruitment efforts. It would cost far more, this argument goes, if the locality is forced to replace the volunteer organizations with a paid force. The Greenlawn fire chief estimates, for example, that it would cost taxpayers $1.2 million to $1.4 million for one engine with five firefighters and one ambulance with two EMS workers, far more than the $52,271 tax break.

Faced with the choice between creating incentives to bolster volunteers or incurring the costs of a paid force, one might reasonably claim that tax breaks for volunteers are necessary. But that doesn’t necessarily make them fair. Why don’t we also give tax breaks to other dedicated volunteers who make admirable sacrifices that benefit our communities, such as literacy volunteers ? Fairness requires us to treat like cases alike, so is it fair to give tax breaks only for certain kinds of volunteer contributions and not others?

Fairness also requires us to consider the moral general question of why it is that localities face such a dilemma in the first place. When tax breaks are expected for voluntary sacrifice in service of the community, and the assumption is that a monetary reward is the only sign of sincere gratitude for civic contributions, one has to wonder whether there is a larger, more pressing, problem that we have failed to diagnose and address.