No increase in police, fire fees in city’s budget— yet

BUCKHANNON – The city of Buckhannon’s budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year does not include any increases in police and fire fees.

But it’s possible that could change, City Administrator Michael Doss said Tuesday. Doss – who recently gave City Council an overview of the city’s budget that is currently balanced at approximately $3.4 million or $3,448,335 – said city officials are still in the “exploratory” phase of discussing restructuring police and fire fees.

“I predict we’ll address (a proposed increase in) police and fire fees within the next three months, or the next quarter,” Doss said Tuesday. “There are several different formula options for us to look at.”

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.

At a City Council budget workshop meeting in February, Doss said he believed 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. 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 more than $200,000 annually.

When Doss presented the proposed budget at Council’s March 20 meeting, he said no increases in police and fire fees were included; however, that could change via a possible budget revision.

“Those discussions can happen between now and the end of this fiscal year (June 30),” he said. “We do have a budget revision that we have to do in July, and that’s the opportunity for council to make some appropriation considerations.”

If council does opt to increase police and fire fees, it will then examine whether it’s feasible to hire an additional police officer or two more firefighters, as has been requested by Police Chief Matt Gregory and Fire Chief Mitch Tacy, respectively.

Also not included in the budget was a change in the allocation of hotel/motel tax revenue as had been requested by Upshur County Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Laura Meadows. The city currently receives 40 percent of that revenue, while the CVB collects 60 percent. Meadows had asked that council award the CVB 75 percent of the revenue and retain only 25 percent.

Doss said that although he doesn’t recommend adjusting the formula, council members may want to look at the possibility of allocating a certain annual amount to the CVB, which is seeking funds for the management and operation of the new National Guard Armory conference center on Brushy Fork Road.

The city’s budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year is $433,974 less than what it budgeted for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. That’s mostly due to the completion of major infrastructure improvement projects, including the construction of the public safety complex that will eventually house both the Buckhannon Police Department and Buckhannon Fire Department, Doss said. Another major project the city has been paying for is the East Main Street project, which is focused on improved sidewalks, curbs and lighting along East Main Street.

“Our B&O (business and occupations) revenue tax continues to remain steady, our hotel/motel tax remains conservative and our coal tax estimate of $18,000 remains the same from last year, although it’s down from a couple years ago,” Doss said.

The budget includes a $500 across-the-board increase in compensation for full-time employees, but does not include funds to hire any additional full-time employees in any department, he said at the March 20 meeting.

“I’m still going to make the recommendation that we look into a hiring freeze for 2014-2015,” Doss said. “I also want to note that there’s a continuous expenditure of $41,000 that will account for the overall monthly payments on the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) loan for the conference center on Brushy Fork Road.”

Doss said Tuesday he’s concerned about a possible increase in the cost of health insurance.

“Preliminary indications from our insurance provider (Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield) show that it will likely be a 12 to 15 percent increase in the cost of health insurance, and 5 percent of that is due to the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

At Council’s March 20 meeting, Councilman Ron Pugh said he believes the public would support an increase in police and fire fees.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of people out there about an increase in police and fire fees and I have not gotten any objection whatsoever from anybody I’ve talked to,” Pugh remarked following Doss’ budget presentation. “They realize that we need to have protection, and I think many of them are willing to go ahead and pay for that.”

Councilman Dave Thomas said it’s important to separate a restructuring of fire and police fees from the question of hiring additional police officers or firefighters.

“I think the issues are in some ways tied together but in some ways are not because I don’t think we’ve ever structured the fire and police fee the proper way from the very beginning,” Thomas said. “As you said the last couple council meetings, Michael (Doss), there’s a subsidization of the commercial enterprises and large enterprises by the individual residents and citizens.”

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