Frustration simmers on both sides of proposed fire fee

Marlinton Town Council was prepared to have the first reading of the Fire Protection Ordinance relating to proposed fire fees at its meeting Monday night, when yet another wrench was thrown into the works.
This ongoing issue has met with more than a few delays, the first being an erroneous opinion from town attorney Steve Hunter in April.
At its called meeting April 21 to deal with the matter, Mayor Joe Smith advised council that Hunter had rendered an opinion on expansion of the town’s fire fee to all of the Marlinton Fire Department’s first response area.
“The opinion from our town attorney is that we cannot enact a fire service fee outside of our corporate limits,” Smith said. “Based on the issue that the town government does not provide the service because the fire department is a non-profit corporation and it’s not a part of the town.”
At the May 4 council meeting, Smith reported that after receiving Hunter’s opinion, he and Town Recorder Robin Mutscheller met with representatives of the fire department.
A review of council’s minutes by the firemen revealed that, indeed, on August 30, 1974, the sitting council had entered into an agreement with the fire department wherein it took possession of the department’s equipment and leased the same back to the department. The lease, a copy of which could not be found, expired in 2005 and was not renewed, but the minutes recorded a later agreement between the town and the department, signed by Mayor Dotty Kellison, concerning the building and collection of the fire fee.
The information was relayed to Hunter, and he reversed his opinion.
“We sent the minutes to Steve Hunter,” Marlinton Fire Chief Herby Barlow said at that meeting. “He changed his opinion from his written opinion.”
As a result of the research it became apparent that the Town of Marlinton owns the fire department and the fire department leases from the town, which makes it legal for the town to collect a fire fee from the first response area.
The mayor and council member Loretta Malcomb met with members of the fire department and moved forward with putting the proposed fire fee in writing, in anticipation of its first reading at Monday night’s meeting.
“I personally feel that this is a good ordinance,” Smith said.
Council member Norris Long, who had been appointed as a council liaison along with the mayor and Malcomb did not attend the meeting with the fire department representatives.
In addition, Long did not attend last month’s council meeting and was unaware of the discussion that had transpired at that time.
Adding to the confusion was the fact that council did not receive the minutes of last month’s meeting and the proposed fire ordinance until they arrived for Monday night’s meeting.
“Having just gotten this tonight,” Long said of the ordinance, “I would like time to read this.”
He asked for more time to consider the ordinance as he has been in conversation with Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester and suggested that he had other options for council to consider.
Council candidate Mark Strauss and Recorder candidate BJ Gudmundsson advised that newspapers in Greenbrier County have reported that the proposed plan in Lewisburg has been “kicked to the curb,” as Gudmundsson put it.
Long said he had not heard that, and agreed that there may be legal problems with the Lewisburg proposal, but did not back down from stalling Marlinton’s proposal.
Some of the proposed Fire Fees as put forth in the Fire Protection Ordinance include: $50 per year for occupied residence, $50 for vacant residential property; a residence that also houses a business would pay $50 for the home and $50 for the business; operating businesses as well as vacant business properties would pay a fee of $75, with an additional $50 for each additional business in the structure; utilities, banks and businesses with more than 25 employees would pay $300.
Every property, residence, business and combinations thereof is included in the ordinance, with churches being exempt from the fee.
In an effort to minimize the effect of the proposed fire fee, the ordinance states that the fee may be paid annually or semi-annually.
Long had questions as to how additional fees would be assessed in the categories of Vehicle Extractions, Entrapment, Grass, Brush and Forest Fires, Hazardous Material Instances, as well as Water and Cave Rescues. These services will be billed at $500 per incident.
There are itemized hourly charges as well as charges for equipment used and/or damaged when responding to Hazardous Material Instances.
“I would like for it to be delayed, for as long as until the next meeting,” Long said. “The second and third reading will fall under the new administration.”
 A town election for mayor and council is set for June 9.
Jamie Kellison, Deputy Chief of the Marlinton Fire Department, offered that fire department representatives were available to meet any time, any day with Long, and they want the ordinance to be kept simple.
“You were a liaison for the meeting with us,” Chief Herby Barlow told Long. “But you did not come to the meeting.”
“I did not make that meeting, and I apologize for that,” Long said.
“And now you want to put a stop to what the mayor and the other council member agreed to,” Barlow said. “Who do we have to meet with to get this thing through? We had a planning meeting and we came up with this plan.”
Council member Louise Barnisky agreed.
“I want to get something done while I’m still here,” she said.
Barnisky is not running for re-election.
Long asked for a week to review the ordinance.
“It was my understanding that these figures had already been decided on,” Malcomb said. “What is the big deal?”
“We’re running out of time and our bills are mounting up,” Kellison said.
Barlow laid the department’s financial report on the council’s table advising them that the department is now $18,000 in the hole.
Smith said it has been established that the town can legally take possession of the fire equipment, but council member Sue Helton and Long still held back from moving on the issue – Helton asking for another opinion from the town’s attorney, and Long asking for time to familiarize himself with the recent actions of the committee and council.
“We have discussed all of this,” Smith said. “It just has never been put into black and white.”
Long agreed to review the ordinance and council voted to call a special meeting to deal with the fire fee issue in mid-June.
“I hope that it can be dealt with at that meeting,” Malcomb said. “That is my only stipulation.”
“I thought it was going to be done tonight,” Smith said.
Gudmundsson offered her opinion as a property owner in the town of Marlinton.
“I would just like to say something on this, as a resident,” Gudmundsson said. “As a property owner in this town, I appreciate the council’s work on this, but this has drug on for so long. We had a devastating fire here in our recent memory that could have taken this town down, and when the fire department hangs in the balance, we hang in the balance. And I would certainly hope that, as a property owner, this can be settled in the next couple of weeks, and these guys will not have to keep coming back on their hands and knees to get something done.”
In other issues concerning the fire department, J. P. Duncan reported that he and Adam Irvine had completed the testing of fire hydrants and had found that only one hydrant had been repaired since last year’s inspection.
“The hydrants look nice,” Duncan said. “Kenny Samples did a nice job painting them, but they need a lot of repairs.”
Hydrant repairs are the responsibility of the town maintenance crew.
In other matters:
• Jamie Kellison addressed council with regard to trimming trees in town. After full foliage, Kellison will begin work on Ninth Avenue.
• Cassie Huggart, and John Tuttle from Region IV presented an Environmental Review for the Water System Project, just one step necessary in bringing the town’s 40-year-old water plant back into compliance.
• Approved budget revisions with regard to the mayor’s travel expense, police protection, fire fees received and an increase in expenses for the town’s election due to early voting.
• Heard a verbal report that FEMA is totally rewriting the Flood Plain Ordinance for the town to help with economic development
• Tabled action on the alleyway between Third Avenue and First Citizens Bank until Zach Chittum, who proposes to build a Tudor’s Biscuit World, has a plan on the table.
• Council will advertise to seek applicants for the position of Municipal Judge.
Marlinton Town Council meets the first Monday of each month at 7 p.m. in council chambers.
Jaynell Graham may be contacted at jsgraham@pocahontastimes.com

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