To quote the late, great Yogi Berra, “it was déjà vu all over again” at Monday night’s Marlinton Town Council meeting as council revisited the issue of the fire fee.
Councilmember Mark Strauss made a motion to amend the Fire Fee Ordinance to increase the annual fee from $25 to $50 for town residents, to be billed bi-annually.
The original fee of $25 was established in 1972.
What appeared to be a simple matter, once again got bogged down in discussion, revision and rehashing of issues that were dealt with a year ago.
Councilmember Sue Helton asked that the town attorney be consulted about the legality of the increase, asked for clarification of the term “due area” and differing opinions were expressed as to whether the town could impose the fee on homeowners outside the town limits.
Marlinton Fire Department Chief Herbie Barlow was visibly frustrated, reminding council, and Helton in particular, that “due area” is the same as “first response area,” saying, “how many times do I have to tell you?”
Articles in The Pocahontas Times report that at its April 8, 2015 meeting, Barlow appeared and asked that the fire fee be increased and the collection area be expanded to include “the entire first due area.”
Council expressed concern that the town might not have the authority to impose a fee as it believed the fire department was separate and apart from the town.
Council agreed, at that time, to seek legal advice from Town Attorney Steve Hunter before moving forward.
At the April 21, 2015 council meeting, Mayor Joe Smith reported that Hunter had rendered an opinion concerning the expansion of the town’s fire fee to all of 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 is not a part of the town.”
At the May 6, 2015 council meeting, Smith reported that after receiving that opinion, he and Town Recorder Robin Mutscheller met with representatives from the fire department.
A review of council’s minutes 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 former 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,” Barlow said. “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.
All that seemed to be lost in the annals of history, as the same questions were bantered about Monday night.
Members of the public expressed their frustration and concern, stating that the long drawn out process was an insult to members of the fire department, who volunteer their time, not only in service, but in hours of training, and put their lives on the line for the citizens of the county.
Strauss worded and reworded his motion about the increase, trying to pacify concerns, while Recorder BJ Gundmundsson wrote and rewrote the amendment to the fire fee ordinance.
Barlow and members of the public waited to see if the issue of the fire fee would, once again, be beaten to near death and left gasping on the council chamber floor.
But, alas, the amendment, pertaining to an increase from $25 to $50 for town residents was passed.
A special meeting of council and fire department representatives is set for Monday, May 9, to deal with the department’s contract with the town, and the issue of a fire fee for the first due area is still not resolved.
Mayor Sam Felton reported that there are several residents outside the town limits who voluntarily pay the fee, including a couple who recently moved to the area. They had read Felton’s Mayor’s Corner in The Pocahontas Times which reported that 82 percent of the fire and rescue calls are received from outside corporate limits.
Other agenda items included a report from Professor Jesse Richardson, Lead Land Use Attorney at the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic and Associate Professor of Law at the West Virginia University College of Law.
Richardson met with the newly established Planning Committee prior to Monday night’s meeting to begin work on a Comprehensive Plan for the town. Richardson told council that the clinic has funding to review the town’s ordinance for dilapidated and abandoned buildings. With regard to other work, the clinic will send a retainer agreement to the mayor for approval before moving ahead with its work with the Planning Committee. Richardson also asked council to consider working with the county commission as it pursues a Comprehensive Plan. Working together will be helpful when it comes to grant funding, he said.
Richardson also said there was “zero interest” in making zoning a part of the plan.
“The whole intent going forward,” Felton said, “is that if we want to apply for funding, we need a Comprehensive Plan. That’s what this is all about.”
The planning will include input from people who live outside the town limits, as well.
Felton advised council that the DEP had reduced its fines against the town to $40,000, but he feels that the amount is still too much for a small town to pay. Due to these fines, council agreed to forego the Summer Youth Program for this year.
In other business
• The town and fire department will share the expense for the installation of security cameras in the municipal building.
• Stauss reported that he has been in contact with Shentel regarding renewal of its cable contract. The new contract will be limited to five years, rather than the previous 15 year agreement.
• Council approved the town’s Tree Ordinance on third reading.
Council meets the first Monday of each month at 7 p.m. in council chambers.