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ND legislators weigh costs of issuing free license plates to volunteer emergency personnel

Larimore Fire Chief William McDermott, front, and volunteer firefighters gather for a photo at the Larimore Volunteer Fire Department. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — State legislators who are volunteer emergency personnel or who work with them think a proposal for free license plates is a nice gesture, but consider the money better spent in other ways.

"There probably isn't a bigger unsung hero than the local volunteer EMS provider and firefighter," said Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan.

Porter is the founder of Metro Area Ambulance, and while he and his employees aren't volunteers, they do work with a lot of them in the surrounding areas.

"(Volunteers) are called in at all hours of the day and leave their jobs and families to move and transport patients hundreds of miles with little to no compensation," Porter said.

But the annual cost of the measure is still "big money," and, in terms of recognition, the state already offers special license plate stickers, he said.

"For the $3 million a biennium it would cost, I'd much rather see money go into education and fund training," said Porter, adding that he hears every year how there aren't enough state training dollars to go around. "I think it's a great gesture, but there are better ways to acknowledge and help."

Measure 4, which will appear on the November ballot, would require the state Department of Transportation to issue red personalized plates to volunteer emergency responders who apply for them. The plates and annual registration would come at no cost to the volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

The plates also would serve as an entrance pass to all North Dakota state parks.

"Throughout the years, I've watched these volunteer emergency responders," said Norval Semchenko, a retired farmer from Max who's leading the effort behind the measure. "They do this job without any reimbursement and are on call 24/7, ready to help those of us in need. I've really come to appreciate these people."

Semchenko said, without volunteers' efforts, North Dakota would be "a whole different society" and he came up with the license plates as a way to "send a thank you note" to recognize them.

"This is one of the things I think is really cool about North Dakota. Some guy wanted to do something nice for volunteers and he did it, even if it's not the perfect solution," said Sen. Kelly Armstrong, who was a volunteer firefighter in Dickinson from 2006-12, before running for office.

Armstrong said the licenses plates could serve a practical aspect, helping identify the volunteers when they roll up to a scene, often in their personal vehicles. And even if the license plates aren't the answer, free state park entry is "the least we could do for them," he said.

Rep. Pat Heinert, R-Bismarck, who serves as Burleigh County Sheriff, said he can think of seven or eight towns in the county who rely on volunteers.

"We have to do whatever we can to keep people volunteering," he said, adding he's not made up his mind about whether this measure is the way to go.

Semchenko had pitched the idea to legislators who hesitated over the cost amid tight state budgets.

The fiscal analysis on the bill estimated total revenue losses of $3.6 million in the first biennium and $3.5 million in subsequent bienniums for a $17.7 million 10-year loss.

Of that, cities would be out $358,468 total on Highway Tax Distribution Funds in the first biennium, counties would be out $630,903 and townships would be out $77,429.

This is all while NDDOT considers raising licensing fees because the current rates the agency charges do not cover its costs of service.

But Armstrong makes the argument that the state and communities save money because of the volunteers they have.

Semchenko said, if NDDOT needs to raise license fees to compensate for the revenue loss so the volunteer doesn't have to pay, he's on board.

"And hopefully, most other North Dakotans feel the same way," he said.

Semchenko said volunteers are, at times, called to walk out on holidays or their kid's sporting event.

"When that pager goes off, they respond," he said. "It's their family affected as well. I don't know how you put a price on that."