No elected official wants to raise taxes or fees for its constituents. But unfortunately, there comes a time when increasing costs makes it necessary. For years, the city of Elkins has had to decrease the General Fund to move money to the Elkins Fire Department's (EFD) separate budget. This has been done on an annual basis because the fire fees were unable to come even close to funding that department's budget, which, by the way, has no fat to cut. This current year, more than $75,000 had to be moved into the EFD budget.
The EFD's budget has escalated not due to any mismanagement or extravagance, but rather due to 40 years of rising costs of insurance, equipment and fuel. Citizens may not know that the fire service fees have not increased since 1972. Think about what has become more expensive during those four decades: health insurance, a tank of gas, groceries - the list is endless. Despite changes made a few years ago in square footage reporting on which the fees are based, there are simply not enough funds.
While the currently proposed 50-percent rate increase (phased in over a three-year period) seems excessive, it still does not fully fund the fire department. It must be noted that the Elkins Volunteer Fire Department raises thousands of dollars each year to help keep our fire department one of the best in the state and provide excellent service to city residents. In addition, the EFD is working hard to improve its ISO rating, which will mean lowered homeowners' insurance for our residents. This funding will assist in this pursuit.
Because of the way the proposed ordinance is structured, we have left the door open to pursue other ways of increasing fire service revenues. We will continue to monitor recent attempts by other cities and towns in West Virginia to expand fire fees to residents outside their city limits, including the ordinance passed in the city of Bridgeport last summer. We will investigate any methods that could be applicable to the city of Elkins. If indeed we are able to secure fees in other ways, we may be able to adjust the next phase of fees appropriately.
But for now, we must support this ordinance. The city Finance Committee will begin work on the next fiscal year's budget within weeks and needs to know whether funds will be available for the EFD. Residents should know that this ordinance is the result of months of financial analysis. This is not something the council proposes capriciously or without painful recognition of its affect on everyone's wallets.
By city charter, council is required to "provide for the prevention and extinguishment of fires, and for this purpose to organize, equip and govern fire companies" and ensure that the city has a balanced budget. Taking money away from the General Fund every year means that other city departments and priorities suffer. Simply put, council has to make the fiscally responsible, though definitely not popular, decision to do what is best for the city residents. The inevitable has been put off for too long.