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Volume 11 - Opinions of Counsel SBRPS No. 31

Opinions of Counsel index

Volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers exemption [Putnam County] (residency and service requirements) (different towns) - Real Property Tax Law, § 466-c:

A volunteer firefighter or volunteer ambulance worker who provides such volunteer service in a Putnam County town other than that in which he or she resides cannot receive an exemption based upon five years of service from his or her home town (pursuant to Real Property Tax Law, 466-c(2)). In contrast, if the volunteer’s home town chooses to offer the lifetime service exemption based upon 20 years of service (RPTL, § 466-c(3)), the fact that its resident serves (or has served) in another town is not a bar to that exemption.

We have been asked for an interpretation of section 466-c of the Real Property Tax Law (added L.2002, c.428), which section authorizes Putnam County and the towns, villages and school districts therein to offer a partial real property tax exemption to volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers (hereafter volunteers). {1}  The question is whether a volunteer, who has served for some 40 years in one town, but whose home is in another town, may receive the exemption.

Section 466-c (as well as the other similar exemptions cited in endnote no. 1) authorizes exemption to “enrolled members” of volunteer fire companies and departments and volunteer ambulance services. That term, however, is not defined in section 466-c nor has our research indicated its use in the Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefit Law or the Volunteer Ambulance Workers’ Benefit Law. Rather, sections 3(1) of both of those laws refer to “active volunteer members.” We assume from the gist of the sponsor’s memorandum for chapter 428 (as well as those of the sponsors of the other similar chapters) that the intent is to benefit currently active (or, as explained below with respect to section 466-c(3), possibly formerly active) volunteers.

Having made that determination, we next turn to the residency issue. Section 466-c actually authorizes two exemptions. The first is for volunteers who have served for at least five years (RPTL, § 466-c(2)). Municipalities are also authorized to provide a lifetime exemption to volunteers who have served for more than 20 years (RPTL, § 466-c(3)). {2}

It seems clear under section 466-c(2) that a volunteer who serves in a town where he does not reside cannot receive an exemption from the town in which he lives. First, section 466-c(2)(a) requires that “the applicant reside[] in the city, town, village or school district served by” the volunteer fire company or department or volunteer ambulance service company (emphasis added). More fundamentally, it is axiomatic that one town cannot dictate to another that it exempt its residents from its taxes.

The language in section 466-c(3) is somewhat different, however. Here, the lifetime exemption is offered so long as the volunteer’s “primary residence is located within [the] county. . . .” Again, while the town in which the volunteer serves cannot require another town to grant an exemption, if the volunteer’s home town chooses to offer the lifetime exemption, the fact that its resident serves (or has served) in another town may not be a bar to this exemption. That is, county residency and 20 years of qualifying service appear to be the only criteria under section 466-c(3). In contrast to section 466-c(2), contemporaneous service and residency are not required under section 466-c(3).

September 27, 2002

{1}  We note that other sections of the RPTL, denominated as either section 466-a, 466-b or 466-c, authorize similar exemptions in several other counties. [Ed. note: Additional sections have been enacted providing similar restrictions in still more counties.]

{2}  We note, in passing, that this subdivision makes no reference to school district adoption of this part of the exemption (contrast RPTL, § 466-c(3) as added by L.2002, c.450 for Suffolk County). To date, only the Putnam and Suffolk County exemptions for volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers authorize school tax exemptions. [Ed.note: Most of the volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers exemptions now authorize school tax exemptions.]