Pocahontas County firefighters filled the County Commission meeting room last Tuesday evening and requested that the Commission implement a yearly county fire fee of $60 per household and $100 per business. County Fire Association President Herb Barlow spoke for the group.
“We are struggling and we believe that this fee, that the law says that you can enact as a Commission, could help us not come to you for money,” he said. “What it’s doing is putting the burden on everybody that owns property here in the county – whether you’re a full-time resident or a part-time resident; whether it be a camp or a seasonal home; and businesses throughout Pocahontas County.”
Barlow said the departments incur significant equipment costs.
“One firefighter’s set of turnout gear, not the top of the line and not bottom of the line, on average, costs about $3,500 apiece,” he said. “The thing with fire gear, a lot of our equipment has a 10-year shelf life. After 10 years, we have to replace it, whether anything’s wrong with it or not.”
Training is another major expense for local fire departments.
“Just to be a basic firefighter in the State of West Virginia takes 120 hours,” said Barlow. “For Level II firefighters, that’s an additional 40 hours. Your officers have to do at least 40-plus more hours of training. All that training costs money.”
“First aid and CPR and all that stuff is in addition to all those hours,” added Durbin-Green Bank Fire Chief Buster Varner.
Barlow recited several ways that local fire departments support the community, including fire and accident response, search and rescue, and event support.
“A few things that we do for our communities – we provide you with a lower insurance premium,” he said. “Because of what you’ve got in the county, your homeowners’ insurance is lower. We’re a community center during events, whether it be for festivals, forums, floods. The fire departments go into the schools. Four-H groups come to the fire department. The Scouts come to the fire departments. We’re always doing something. We’re not just running up and down the road with the red lights flashing.”
Barlow said county fire department leaders had worked for eight months developing the $60 fee proposal.
“We’re not asking for money from the Commission,” he said. “We’re here, asking for money from the county citizens. I can speak for my area. I spoke to people within the Marlinton response area; they don’t have a problem paying the fee.”
Varner said the voluntary payment system in place now is not working.
“It’s a more fair way of supporting your department, to spread that over everybody, instead of ‘he’s doing it and this one’s not,’” said Varner. “It’s kind of a volunteer thing now and it’s just not working. We have some faithful people that pay us, but we have a lot of non-payers who don’t.”
Marlinton currently charges a $25 fire fee for town residents. After consulting state law, the Commission determined that a county fee would apply on top of any town fire fee. Barlow said he would expect Town Council to repeal the municipal fire fee if the county fee is instituted.
“We have a good working relationship with the city council,” he said. “If they know that we’re going to get a better collection from a county fee, I don’t see how they would stand against that.”
Prosecuting Attorney Eugene Simmons asked how much revenue the proposed fire fee would generate.
Barlow said a good revenue estimate had not been determined, but that he planned to work with the Assessor’s Office to prepare one.
“It’s going to be way more than we get from the hotel/motel tax,” said Barlow. “There’s so many places out there – cabins, camps, seasonal homes, businesses, that aren’t paying it that are benefitting from it, because everyone in this county benefits from the fire department.”
The Commission allocates $50,000 from the hotel/motel tax to the Fire Association every year. This year, the Commission contributed an additional $100,000 to the Fire Association.
“One thing we have to do before we get it done is – we’ve got to get some sort of an idea what it’s going to bring in,” said Simmons. “That could be done by going to the Assessor’s Office and getting a list of the buildings.”
Commissioner William Beard said more information is needed.
“I personally think, and I’ve heard some comments from other people, that before we go any further, we ought to have either an audit or a 990 Form from all the departments, plus a budget that is set up according to what projected revenue could be,” he said.
Upon further review of the state code, the Commission determined that it must receive a petition, signed by at least 10 percent of the registered voters in the county, before it can approve a fire fee ordinance.
Barlow said he would obtain a petition and the detailed financial information and return to the Commission.
“Give us a month or so, because we’ll need to get put on the agenda,” he said.
If the Commission approves a fire fee, the ordinance must be published in the newspaper. If the Commission receives a petition against the ordinance within 45 days of publication, signed by 30 percent of the county’s registered voters, the ordinance cannot take effect until a majority vote supports it during a primary, general or special election.
Archery team working on practice facility
Jody Spencer, with the Pocahontas County Archery Team, spoke to the Commission about a long-term lease for space in the Hanover Building. Spencer said the team would like to make improvements totaling about $10,000, but is concerned about losing the space after making the investment. Spencer said any team activity at the Hanover Building would be covered under Board of Education liability insurance as a school function. Simmons said he would work on an agreement with the Board of Education and present it to Commission for approval at its next meeting.
In other business, the County Commission:
– Appointed John Leyzorek to the Local Emergency Planning Committee;
– Appointed Ruth Sharp to the County Building Commission;
– Referred the resumés of Denise Campbell and J.L. Clifton to the PMH Board of Trustees for a recommendation for new board member;
– Approved a bid from Woodford Oil to provide heating oil for county buildings at Roanoke Marathon rack price plus ten cents;
– Approved removal of a deed restriction for the sale of a lot near the hospital, and;
– Approved changing the county’s dental insurance from West Virginia Association of Counties to Guardian.
The next regular Pocahontas County Commission meeting is scheduled for November 3 at 8:30 a.m.