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South Farmingdale volunteer firefighters' retirement benefits up for vote

Registered voters who have lived in the South Farmingdale Fire District for at least 30 days will be eligible to vote June 3 on a proposal to change retirement benefits for volunteer firefighters.

The proposal by the district Board of Fire Commissioners would freeze the Defined Benefit Service Award Program and establish a new Defined Contribution Service Award Program. The board says the change would save an estimated $110,000 in the first year for the district and taxpayers while providing a bigger payout for volunteers.

"To the best of my knowledge, we're the first district on Long Island to go with this," said Thomas Mastakouris, chairman of the board.

"We're concerned with the heightened cost of living in Nassau County," Mastakouris said. The change should save money and provide greater payouts for firefighters or their families because they should receive funds longer than they do from current annuities based on average life spans. Current retirees are not affected.

About 700 New York fire districts have launched service award programs since 1990 to help recruit and retain firefighters.

The South Farmingdale program that began in 1991 provides a $20 monthly award beginning at age 62 for each year of service credit earned. The payments are paid for the volunteer's lifetime with a minimum of 10 years of payments made to the volunteer or his beneficiary. The maximum benefit is $600 monthly after earning 30 years of service credit.

The commissioners propose freezing the program effective Dec. 31. The district's total cost for the program in 2014 is about $160,000. The new program would start Jan. 1 and function like an IRA or 401(k) plan.

For each year of service credit, a $700 (the maximum under state law) contribution would be deposited in the volunteer's account. These contributions would be invested and be payable to the volunteer beginning at 62. The maximum years of service credit that could be earned is being increased to 40.

Based on the current active membership, the department estimates the new program will cost about $50,000 per year.

A volunteer generally will not be vested until earning five years of service credit.

"We should also be able to extend the years of service for the firefighter" because of the financial incentive to serve longer, Mastakouris said. "We need that experience to stay in the firehouse."

A public hearing will be scheduled before the vote, which will be from 6 to 9 p.m. at the fire department at 819 Main St.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the benefit payment period.

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