County responds to fire fee comments

ELKINS – Randolph County Commissioners took issue Thursday with comments made by members of Elkins City Council concerning its fire fee expansion ordinance.

City Council OK’d the mandate at its June 19 meeting, and will impose a new fee structure in the Elkins Fire Department’s first due response area beginning July 1, 2015. The ordinance calls for those living in that area to be charged a $100-per-year fee for all single-family homes and other structures with two or fewer units and a 5-cent-per-square-foot annual charge for commercial and industrial structures.

County Commission President Chris See noted the timing of the city’s ordinance was likely prompted by last year’s West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decision involving a similar situation between Harrison County and the city of Bridgeport.

“A lot of these little towns and cities, I think, were waiting on the ruling,” See said. “I’ve had discussion, and a few people are upset about it (the ordinance). City officials told me they were going to impose a fire fee outside the city limits and that there was nothing the County Commission could do to stop it.”

Specifically, Commissioners were concerned about comments made by Councilman Mark Scott, 3rd Ward.

“In the Friday, June 20, edition of The Inter-Mountain, it seemed like members of Elkins City Council wanted to take the County Commission to task over the lack of a fire fee in Randolph County,” said Commissioner Mike Taylor.

“What was in the paper that day, Councilman Scott took what I consider a cheap shot at members of this Commission and members of past Commissions when he said that the city had to step in and do something and said your County Commission has not served you well. I disagree with that comment, and I don’t know if it was for political reasons that he made that statement. This Commission has worked with the city of Elkins in the past several years on numerous projects where we have taken county taxpayer funds and helped the city with various projects, up to and including a $30,000 donation toward the ladder truck the city bought about two or three years ago.”

Scott told The Inter-Mountain for the June 20 article that the city had been planning to implement the fee for almost a year. He added the city was losing money paying for the fire department to travel outside the city and noted 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. Your County Commission has not done you well.”

Taylor and the other Commissioners noted the extensive amount of funding pledged each year to the various fire departments in the county.

“The County Commission has, over the years, continued to contribute to all the volunteer fire departments in the community. Randolph County has 10 volunteer fire departments. This Commission, each and every year when we sit down to do our budget, tries to budget as much as we possibly can for those fire departments, because we are very keenly aware of the daunting task that they have to make ends meet,” Taylor said.

“With that said, this past year, the Randolph County Commission had allocated between $15,000 and $16,000 to every volunteer fire department in this county, including the Elkins Volunteer Fire Department,” Taylor noted.

Taylor also pointed out several other instances of cooperation between the Commission and the city.

“We’ve worked with them on the flood control project that they came to us about and wanted assistance for. They came to us about the landfill issue, and we offered them assistance. We have tried to be good neighbors and have tried to work collectively with the city of Elkins; however, when you read comments like this in the paper that members of council make inaccurate statements, inappropriate statements – it makes it difficult for me, as one commissioner, and Chris and Joyce can speak up, but how much of a cooperative effort do they want,” Taylor said. “We can sit here and make remarks about the city of Elkins, if we so choose. We don’t choose to do that. Once again, I think the comment is irresponsible. I think it’s inappropriate, and this is the second time that Councilman Scott has decided to do that.”

Aside from the fire fee issue, Taylor said Randolph County Emergency Services is in a similar position with the fire department. The county’s emergency squads provide services to all residents of the county, including those within city limits.

“To my knowledge, other than the taxpayer money that comes from city of Elkins residents, the city of Elkins does not contribute to the Randolph County Emergency Squad,” Taylor said. “They are either self-funded or the funding they get from the Randolph County Commission. So, to make a statement that we don’t care about the citizens of Elkins or the citizens of Randolph County disturbs me.”

“The fact of the matter is, is that this Commission has worked with the Randolph County Fire Protection Association over the last year and have discussed and have worked with them to discuss and bring to the people a proposed fire levy throughout Randolph County,” Taylor added. “We understand the struggles that they have. Mr. (Kurt) Gainer and the rescue squad struggle. This Commission only has so much money to deal out to the entities. With what we give to the fire departments, which is $160,000 a year, and we give the rescue squad another $70,000, that’s almost a quarter-of-a-million dollars of taxpayer money that we are trying to filter into that. Now, is that enough? Maybe not. But, we have a responsibility to maintain a budget, and that’s what we do.

Both See and Commissioner Joyce Johns supported Taylor’s remarks, with See adding, “The city wants to work with us, you’d think they’d come talk to us before they would say anything in the paper. They should come and ask us and get the facts.”

According to figures provided by the city, the new ordinance will generate $885,113 in total revenue. Of that, $479,031 will come from within city limits and $406,082 will come from elsewhere in the first due response area.