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Volume 11 - Opinions of Counsel SBRPS No. 51

Opinions of Counsel index

Volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers exemption [Suffolk County] (service requirement) (split service); (ownership) (multiple qualified owners); (computation) (dual service by individual) - Real Property Tax Law, § 466-c:

To qualify for the volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers exemption in Suffolk County on the basis of a minimum of five years of service, that service must have been performed for a single volunteer company.

Where two (or more) qualified firefighters or ambulance workers own property together, their exemptions may be combined.

Where title is in a single owner, only one exemption may be allowed, even if the individual qualifies both as a volunteer firefighter and as a volunteer ambulance worker.

We have received three inquiries concerning the volunteer firefighters and volunteer ambulance workers exemption authorized within Suffolk County (Real Property Tax Law, §466-c [added L.2002, c.450]). The first question is whether a firefighter may qualify if he has served for a total period of five years: two years in one fire department followed by three years in another. The second question is whether two exemptions may be allowed where property is owned by two firefighters. The last question is whether an individual, who is both a volunteer firefighter and a volunteer ambulance worker, can receive two exemptions on his or her property.

Split jurisdiction service

In our opinion, the answer to the first question is that no exemption should be granted. That is, section 466-c(2) provides, in part:

2. Such exemption shall not be granted to an enrolled member of an incorporated volunteer fire company, fire department or incorporated voluntary ambulance service residing in such county unless:
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(d) the applicant has been certified by the authority having jurisdiction for the incorporated volunteer fire company or fire department as an enrolled member of such incorporated volunteer fire company or fire department for at least five years...(emphasis added).

Under the facts as presented, the firefighter’s current company is unable to certify his or her enrolled status in that company for the requisite number of years.

Multiple qualifying owners

In our opinion, where two qualified firefighters or ambulance workers (or one of each) own property together, they may combine their exemptions. Note that we previously opined that where a husband and wife are both veterans, their eligible funds veterans exemptions (RPTL, §458) may be combined (2 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 106). In 4 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 65 we reached a similar conclusion as to property owned by two clergymen seeking exemption under section 460 of the RPTL. Like sections 458 and 460, section 466-c offers an exemption on the basis of a service provided by an individual. Where two such qualifying individuals own property together, we conclude that they should be allowed to combine their exemptions.

Dual service by an individual

Section 466-c(1) authorizes an exemption to be granted to “[r]eal property owned by an enrolled member of an incorporated volunteer fire company, fire department or incorporated volunteer ambulance service...” (emphasis added). {1}  As a general rule of statutory construction, “or” is to be construed to be interchangeable with “and” so as to effectuate legislative intent (McKinney’s Statutes, §365). This appears to be such a situation.

Where the Legislature has intended for an individual to receive two exemptions, it has explicitly so provided. For instance, the alternative veterans exemption defines a “qualified owner” as “a veteran, the spouse of a veteran or the unremarried surviving spouse of a veteran” (RPTL, §458-a(1)(c)). That definition includes the specific provision: “Where a veteran is also the unremarried surviving spouse of a veteran, such person may also receive any exemption to which the deceased spouse was entitled” (ibid.). {2}  No similar “double exemption” provision has been included within section 466-c, so the inference must be drawn that none was intended (McKinney’s Statutes, §240).

In our opinion then, where property is owned by two qualifying individuals, perhaps a husband and wife, where each is a member of a volunteer company, their two exemptions may be combined. Based on the rules of statutory construction discussed above, however, where there is but a single owner, only one exemption may be allowed, even if the individual is an enrolled member of both the fire company/department and the ambulance service.

January 15, 2004
February 23, 2004


{1}  As we explained in 11 Op.Counsel SBRPS No. 31, the term “enrolled member” is not defined in law. We assume it is intended to refer to “active volunteer members” as that term is defined in sections 3(1) of the Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefit Law and the Volunteer Ambulance Workers’ Benefit Law. It is our understanding that a company member must respond to at least a specified minimum number of calls to be considered active. We assume that in the situation presented, the individual satisfies that standard for both companies in which he or she is a member.

{2}  The quoted phrase, added by chapter 100 of the Laws of 1988, was apparently added to supersede the opinion we expressed in 8 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 98.

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