Buckhannon considers increasing police, fire fees

BUCKHANNON – The city of Buckhannon is considering restructuring – and possibly increasing – its police and fire fees.

Now, city officials want input from the public.

During a budget planning meeting last week, City Administrator Michael Doss told City Council members that although a draft of the city’s budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year does not include any increases in police and fire fees, he’s advising council to think about altering them in order to create a more equitable structure.

“I’m recommending that we look at both the police and fire fees, trying to create some equitable structure that would essentially eliminate some of the subsidizations by residents for commercial businesses,” Doss said.

Currently, Buckhannon residents pay $1.50 per month in police fees and $1.50 per month in fire fees, for a total of $3. Commercial entities pay police and fire fees based on annual gross receipts, Doss said; however, once a business makes $200,000 or more, the fees are capped at $15 per month.

Doss said he believes city residents are “subsidizing” police and fire fees for larger businesses – that is, paying a disproportionate amount of money compared with the amount commercial entities are required to pay.

“I’m not going to crucify Walmart, but I do want to make this note, and I think it will bring some attention to how grossly inept our police and fire fees are,” Doss said. “Walmart pays an annual of $360 a year in police and fire fees – that’s $180 police, $180 fire – now (Buckhannon Chief of Police) Matt (Gregory) can attest to the fact that there’s a lot of shoplifting and different things going on at Walmart, and that gobbles up $180 of a police officer’s time… oh gosh, in a trip or two. And God forbid if there’s a fire call or something and we have to mobilize to go out to Walmart, $180 isn’t going to go far. And again, I’m not picking on Walmart, but the way our (fee) structure is set up.”

Doss said $30 per month is the most amount of money the city will ever realize in police and fire fees from any business making over $200,000 annually.

“So Jake Anderegg (owner of Anderegg’s Jewelers on Main Street) pays $360 a year for police and fire and Walmart pays $360 for police and fire,” Mayor Kenny Davidson observed.

“That’s correct,” Doss replied. “That burden essentially is being subsidized by the residents of Buckhannon because their (commercial entities’) fees are so small. There’s more residents than businesses, but when you take it all into consideration – and all things fair – it does end up being a subsidization by our residents, and that’s really not fair.”

A request from Buckhannon Police Chief Matt Gregory spurred Doss’ analysis of the city’s police and fire fee schedules. Gregory has requested that council allocate money in its 2014-2015 fiscal year budget for the hiring of a 10th full-time police officer. The department is currently operating with nine officers, but Gregory said the prevalence of drugs as well as the economic growth in the city necessitates an additional officer.

“Ten is where we need to be as a growing city,” Gregory told City Council during the budget planning meeting. “You need to just look around you, this town is evolving and it’s not going to stop.”

Buckhannon Fire Chief Mitch Tacy, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, also wants to hire two more firefighters, Doss said.

Raising police and fire fees for commercial entities – and possibly for residents – would enable Gregory to hire another officer and Tacy to hire two firefighters, Doss told council.

“I think it’s kind of putting the cart before the horse to go ahead and give a blessing to hire the additional officer and the additional fireman without having the revenue there to support it,” he said. “The first thing we have to do if council’s decision is to hire another officer and to hire another fireman – and really the only way as I see it to fund it – is to look at our police and fire fees.”

Councilman Dave Thomas said he has “never been happy” with the city’s police and fire fee structures and suggested establishing a fee structure based on square footage of a building. Thomas, however, said he believes police and fire fees should be restructured, regardless of whether council votes to hire additional employees.

“I do think we have to separate between adding a firefighter or a police officer and trying to look at, do we have the appropriate structure for fees?” Thomas said. “I think we need to change the structure for fees regardless of whether we add personnel. We haven’t had a good structure for years, and I think we need to address it.”

Councilman Ron Pugh also weighed in favor of adjusting fees.

“I think if we want a professional force either way – police or fire – you have to be willing to pay for it,” Pugh remarked. “I don’t think that any reasonable citizen out there would disagree with that.”

Davidson said if raising commercial fees generate enough revenue to add personnel, there may be no need to touch residential fees.

“I’d like to give the public the opportunity to react to it,” the mayor said. “If we do the numbers and see just how much revenue do we need to hire a police officer, the associated costs, and a couple firefighters, simply restructuring the commercial (police and fire fees) might give us the money we need. We may not need to bother (with increasing) residents’ fees.”

Thomas again said he thought the two issues should be separate.

“I think it’s absolutely imperative that we don’t tie the increase in the restructuring of the police and fire fees to whether or not we add additional staffing,” he said. “I think the fire and police (fee) structure has not been appropriate for years and should be addressed. They’re both separate issues as far as I’m concerned.”

Davidson disagreed.

“Matt (Gregory) is talking about a real need for a police officer; Mitch (Tacy) has said to me for years that he needs at least two additional fireman,” the mayor said. “The reason that he needs those two is the volunteers are not coming out.

“He’s not getting the number of people out where it’s safe for his people to fight a fire.

“I think we need to if we’re going to increase the fee, we need to offset that with what we need in terms of dollars to hire these people. I think we ought to establish the need ‘how many dollars does it take?’ then take a look at the restructuring, and if that’s the case, then we need to get it out before the public so that people can react to that.”

Also at Tuesday’s budget meeting, Doss presented a preliminary draft of the 2014-2015 budget, which is currently balanced at $3,441,977.

Council will reconvene to discuss the budget during a second work session meeting in March.

Contact Katie Kuba by email at kkuba@theintermountain.com. Follow her on Twitter at IMT_Kuba.