Residents oppose fire fee

ELKINS – Despite five residents speaking against a proposed fire fee expansion, Elkins City Council unanimously approved the final reading of the measure on Thursday.

The ordinance gives the city the ability to impose fire service fees to all structures in the Elkins Fire Department’s first due response area, whether or not it is within corporate limits.

“I am here to oppose the fire fee that is proposed to be implemented for us residents outside city limits,” Harpertown resident Mark Phillips said during Thursday’s meeting. “I don’t support the way this has been done. I hadn’t heard anything about this until 2 p.m. today.”

The ordinance will change the way the city charges fire fees, and will expand the fee to everyone in the first due response area beginning July 1, 2015. The ordinance charges a flat fire fee rate of $100 per year for all single family homes 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.

Phillips said he supported the Elkins Fire Department and understands the needs for additional equipment and personnel, but said more could have been done to inform residents about the fee changes.

“It is being shoved down our throats,” he said. “We don’t have a say. The people of this county should have a voice. This needs to go out to a vote from the people.”

Phillips’ spoke longer than the five-minute limit during the meeting’s public comment section, but Elkins Mayor Van Broughton asked Council’s blessing to allow Phillips to continue speaking.

“What are we getting in return?” Phillips asked. “We have fire protection. I think that the City Council, you, Mayor, should take some time and think about this.”

Fellow Harpertown resident Mike Smith also spoke about a perceived lack of information provided by the city or the fire department.

“We should have been notified through the mail,” he said. “We should have been able to voice our opinions. We were robbed of that.”

Resident Harry Bennett, of the Hillcrest area, said the ordinance was “a joke.”

“Why should I pay a fire fee when we don’t even have any fire hydrants?” he said. “Our county commissioners should be here fighting this for us.”

Bennett said the ordinance should have been put to a vote by the residents.

“You may as well take my wallet,” he said. “You don’t have anything that is going to help us. I only get so much money a month and you want to rob me.”

Councilman Carman Metheny, 3rd Ward, tried to explain some of the merits of the ordinance to those in attendance.

“The county pays $8,000 to the volunteer association. No money from the county goes into the city’s coffers,” Metheny said. “The city’s budget pays the fire department for traveling outside the city. The city residents are paying for that service.”

Metheny said the new fees will allow the city to send more trucks out to battle fires. He said the city can only send two engines and a few firefighters now, but with the new ordinance the entire department can respond.

Once the public comment portion of the meeting ended, Councilman Bob Woolwine, 1st Ward, made a motion to approve the fire fee expansion on the third and final reading. The motion was seconded by Councilwoman Marilynn Cuonzo, 4th Ward.

“There are people right now that are struggling that pay for these services that go outside the city,” Councilman Joe Sabatino, 5th Ward, said. “If we want to revitalize the city, we have to do this.”

Councilman Mark Scott, 3rd Ward, said the city has discussed implementing the fee for almost a year. He said the city is losing money paying for the fire department traveling outside the city. He said the Randolph County Commission could have implemented a county wide fire fee.

“The County Commission has had decades to fix this and hasn’t,” Scott said. “We had to step in and do something.”

Scott told the attendance, “Your County Commission has not done you well.”

Council passed the third and final reading with no dissenting votes. First Ward Councilman Lonnie Randall and Second Ward Councilman Gene Ochsendorf were not in attendance at the meeting.

According to a fire fee computation provided by the city, the new ordinance will bring in a total annual revenue of $885,113 if passed. Of that revenue, $479,031 will come from within city limits, while the remaining $406,082 will come from structures within the first due response area, but outside the corporate limits.