Elkins looks to expand fire fees

ELKINS – The city of Elkins is looking to expand the fire fee to approximately 2,767 residences outside city limits, bringing in an additional $406,082 of revenue to the Elkins Fire Department.

Elkins City Council has already passed two of the three required readings of the ordinance. The ordinance not only will expand who has to pay the fee, but also will change the way fire fees are assessed.

The current fee is assessed on the basis of square footage of structures. If the ordinance passes, a new flat fee will be implemented.

“The ordinance will be up for a final reading on June 19,” City Clerk Sutton Stokes said. “It will change the way fire fees are charged and applies charges to the (Elkins Fire Department’s) first due response area.”

According to an informational packet obtained at City Hall, the ordinance would charge a flat rate of $100 per owner-occupied home and all other structures consisting of two or fewer living units. Any commercial or industrial structures or rental structures with three or more units will pay five cents per square foot.

Stokes said the city will bring in a total annual revenue of $885,113 if the ordinance is passed. Of that revenue, $479,031 will come from within city limits and the remaining $406,082 from structures within the first due response area, but outside the corporate limits.

The fire department’s first due response area includes all of city limits and an area that extends over a large area around the city. A map provided in the information highlights the area, that includes Glenmore, Bowden, Highland Park, Crystal Springs and others areas.

The city budgeted $457,093 in funding to the fire department for the 2013/2014 fiscal year.

“What is interesting about this is that people are going to believe the city will be bringing in all this revenue,” Stokes said. “The Rules and Ordinance Committee had to consider if the city could afford it (the extension). The city will have to build out the fire department to provide proper response. The money will be dedicated to the fire department.”

According to the informational packet, the new regulations will have advantages and will help solve issues. It states the advantages include: increased professional staffing, an increased number of professional firefighters on each shift, an increased budget for training, equipment and the possibility of reduced insurance premiums outside the city limits.

Without the new extension the fire department can only send 12 firefighters and two engines equipped with 2,000 gallons of water to any call outside the city limits. With the extended fee the entire department – 28 firefighters, all four engines and the aerial truck equipped with a 95-foot ladder and 4,000 gallons of water – can respond to calls.

The extended fee will also help the fire department combat the issue with a decreasing number of volunteers. It states that younger people are not signing up to be volunteers and the expense and time to meet certification requirements are keeping people from volunteering.

The extension will also help stabilize funding for the department. Currently, $100,000 of the department’s budget comes from the volunteers’ fundraising and from city/state funding. According to the information provided, if the funding is cut or fundraising falls, the fire fee extension would reduce the need for outside funding.

“The people coming in under the fire service fee can be comfortable,” Stokes said. “The rate is the same within the city and out. The ordinance contains language that (states) raises in the rates would be for everyone.”

The ordinance states the fees can only be raised or lowered if everyone in the fire department’s first due response area is included, whether they are inside the city limits or not.

“Everyone will be paying the same,” Stokes said. “This type of fee has stood the legal test.”

According to Stokes, the city of Bridgeport passed a similar ordinance that was challenged in West Virginia Supreme Court and the law was upheld.

The final reading of the ordinance will be considered during the City Council meeting slated for 7 p.m. Thursday in council chambers at Elkins City Hall. If passed, the new fees will go into effect on July 1, 2015.