Opinion 2001 - 2


This opinion represents the views of the Office of the State Comptroller at the time it was rendered. The opinion may no longer represent those views if, among other things, there have been subsequent court cases or statutory amendments that bear on the issues discussed in the opinion.

FIRE DISTRICTS -- Powers and Duties (discretion in crediting points under a service award program)
VOLUNTEER FIREFIGHTERS -- Service Award Programs (point accumulation required in order to be credited with one year of firefighting service); (participation in department responses required in order to be credited with twenty-five points); (granting of points for one activity conditioned upon accumulation of points in another category)

GENERAL MUNICIPAL LAW 217(c): (1) A service award program sponsor may not require accumulation of more than fifty points as a condition precedent to crediting an active volunteer firefighter with a year of firefighting service; (2) A program sponsor may not require participation in a number of calls greater than the statutory minimum in order to qualify for the twenty-five points for that activity; and (3) A program sponsor may not create priorities among activities by conditioning the granting of points for one activity on the accumulation of points in another category.

This is in response to your inquiry concerning the criteria, pursuant to section 217(c) of article 11-A (214 et seq.) of the General Municipal Law ("GML"), for point accumulation under a service award program for volunteer firefighters. You ask the following: 1) may a program sponsor require accumulation of more than fifty points in a calendar year in order for a firefighter to be credited with a "year of firefighting service"? 2) may a service award program sponsor require a greater minimum number of calls than that provided for in section 217(c) in order for a firefighter to be awarded twenty-five points for participation in department responses? and 3) may a service award program sponsor create "priorities" among the activities for point accumulation set forth in GML 217(c), by making participation in a certain number of department responses a prerequisite for the award of points for other categories of activities?

Section 217(c) of the GML provides that "[a] year of firefighting service shall be credited under a service award program for each calendar year after establishment of the program in which an active volunteer firefighter accumulates at least fifty points" (emphasis added). In view of the mandatory language in this provision, we believe it is clear that the program sponsor has no discretion to alter this fifty point threshold. Therefore, in any calendar year in which an eligible, active volunteer firefighter accumulates at least fifty points, he or she must be credited with a year of firefighting service. The program sponsor may not require accumulation of more than fifty points as a condition precedent to crediting an active volunteer firefighter with a year of firefighting service.

Subdivision c of section 217 further provides that points must be granted "in accordance with a system adopted by the program sponsor." The system "shall provide" that points "shall be granted" for activities designated by the program sponsor, selected from the list of activities set forth at subparagraphs i-viii of section 217(c). Several categories of activities on the list include specified point maximums (e.g., GML 217[c][i], training courses, twenty-five point maximum; GML 217 [c][ii], drills, twenty point maximum; GML 217[c][iii], sleep-in or stand-by, twenty point maximum; GML 217[c][iv], elected or appointed position, twenty-five point maximum; GML 217[c][v], attendance at meetings, twenty point maximum; GML 217[c][vii], miscellaneous activities, maximum fifteen points). In those instances, section 217(c) does not prescribe a particular number of points, but rather provides a cap on the number of points that may be earned under each category. Therefore, it is our opinion that a program sponsor, in fashioning its point system, may limit the number of points that may be accumulated for those categories to less than the maximum set forth in the statute.

With respect to points for "participation in department responses," however, section 217(c)(vi) provides for the granting of twenty-five points "for responding on the minimum number of calls" as specified in that provision. We have previously concluded that, since the section 217(c)(vi) provides for a fixed number of points for responding to a minimum number of calls, once a firefighter reaches the statutory minimum, he or she must be credited with twenty-five points (1995 Opns St Comp No. 95-9, p 19)1. Consequently, a service award program sponsor may not require a number of calls greater than the statutory minimum in order to qualify for the twenty-five points.

Finally, as indicated, section 217(c) provides that the program sponsor's point system "shall provide" that points be granted for activities designated by the sponsor, selected from the list set forth in section 217(c). Further, the last undesignated paragraph of section 217(c) authorizes a program sponsor to "designate less than all the activities specified" in the list as those for which points may be earned. Read together, these provisions authorize a program sponsor, in designing its own system, to provide that certain activities are ineligible for service credit; however, once an activity is selected as part of the sponsor's system, points must be granted to firefighters meeting the criteria for that activity. It is our opinion that article 11-A does not authorize a program sponsor to create priorities among activities, by making the granting of points for one activity conditioned upon the accumulation of points in another category.2

January 31, 2001
Charles S. Kovit, Esq., Attorney at Law
Hewlett Bay Fire District

1 Note that several of the categories of activities under section 217(c)(i-v and vii) also contain mandatory point designations for the performance of individual activities within the category.

2 In suggesting that program sponsors may have very broad discretion in fashioning their own point systems, the letter of inquiry calls attention to the definition of the term "[y]ear of firefighting service" in GML 215(11). The term is defined as a twelve month period during which an active firefighter participates in the fire service and satisfies the "minimum requirements of participation established by the sponsoring organization", to be applied on a consistent and uniform basis, subject to the "minimum standards established by the sponsoring organization" (GML 215[11]). It is our opinion that the reference in this definition to "minimum requirements of participation" relates to the age and length of service requirements for participation in the program (see GML 217[a]). The import of the subsequent reference to "minimum standards established by the sponsoring organization," however, is unclear. It could refer to the service award point system. Even if it does, we do not believe the isolated word "minimum" is sufficient to authorize, by implication, a program sponsor to create its own priorities among activities and override the comprehensive detailed statutory scheme relating to the point system.