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Buckhannon looks at first due fire fee

BUCKHANNON — The Buckhannon City Council is continuing discussion on implanting a first due fire fee that would impose a fee on all residents served by the Buckhannon Fire Department in their first due area. This would include structures outside of the corporate city limits.

At a city budget hearing recently, council members held a candid discussion about a first due fire fee.

The fee, if done at $4.50 a month, could generate $200,000 a year that would fund three new career firefighters — a need by the Buckhannon Fire Department to better serve citizens and meet accreditation standards.

Council also discussed taking the $200,000 from the sales tax revenue generated each year, but some council members expressed concern that sales tax revenue was not always guaranteed. Also discussed Wednesday was a look at increasing the fire and police fees. No decisions were made at the meeting.

Director of finance and administration Amberle Jenkins told council, “If you didn’t increase the fire fee in town and went with the 1 ¢ outside, it would make a resident out of the city $4.50 per month,” she said. “I roughly estimated we would get $200,000 out of that and that is really a guess.”

All council members present (councilman Jack Reger was absent) expressed interest in continuing to explore a fire due fire fee.

Councilman Dave Thomas said he felt it was time to have a first due fire fee.

“The first due residents have been supported by the residents within the city,” he said. “It’s time we have a first due. It’s going to require more work internally from our bookkeeper and so forth.”

He also noted the fire fee had not been increased since 2015.

“I am not suggesting that we have an increase in the fire fee for the businesses, but I think the residents are only paying $3 per month,” he said. “Last time we had the increase was when we hired another firefighter under [former chief] Mitch Tacy.”

Thomas also pointed to there not being a police fee increase since 1983.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “For me to be protected with the city police $1.50 per month, we need to take a serious look at that.”

Thomas expressed a wish to see more money from sales tax go towards paving projects in the county.

“I am very protective of the sales tax for infrastructure to make up for infrastructure we haven’t done for years and what else can we do to make the community more quality and so forth,” he said. “We have bragged for years that we are one of the lowest cost communities in the state of West Virginia in regards to enterprise boards, police fee and fire fee. I would still like us to be reasonable, but I think it’s time for us to say we are a great community and we have a lot of things going for us. Let’s enhance the community even more. Sometimes that takes investment.”

Thomas said he felt first due was absolutely important but that the city needed to look at both the first due fee and the fire fee.

“I also think the county commission needs to take a serious look outside the city residential area… the people only pay $25 a year,” he said.

Skinner said he had a conversation with a county commissioner.

“As you would imagine, from a county commission standpoint, they have significant concern about it,” he said.

Skinner said the county commission does not want to increase the $25 fee because of the potential hurt it would place on the residents.

Thomas said, “They ought to tell us that in person.”

City attorney Tom O’Neill also serves as a member of the county fire board.

He told city council, “Dave’s point about the city subsidizing fire service in the unincorporated first due area is a fair point. The other side of that coin is that unincorporated first due area – and I live in that area – subsidizes the appropriations through the fire board for the rest of the county.”

O’Neill said another concern is that if the city adopts a first due fire fee, it will significantly impair the appropriates the fire board is able to make to all the other departments in the county.

O’Neill said the city has the power to implement a first due fire fee but there will be consequences to that.

Thomas said that is one of the best answers for metro government.

“When you can’t work out a system because of the lines that are drawn between the city and the county…if the county refuses to increase the $25 per year fire fee for the citizens,” he said. “Somehow we have to work together with the county commissioners and say we want to do this. We don’t want to be adversaries with each other, but we have to be realistic.

“Why is it the residents of the city are paying $36 a year versus the $25,” he said. “I think $36 a year is very minimal.”

Councilman C.J. Rylands said in Elkins, he pays $83 for fire fee a month for one building. He owns multiple buildings in Buckhannon making increased fire fees more onerous but Rylands said he realized that more money needed to be generated for more firemen.

“Here I am, demonstrating my own personal needs when I am supposed to be a fiduciary for the City of Buckhannon and municipality,” he said. “I would love to see a fully accredited fire department with quick and easy access to everyone in the first due area, but that is going to cost money.

“Sales tax could be dramatically impacted by the loss of one business,” he said. “The foundation is to be stable. I think we need to examine a first due fire fee and just do it. We can have it in place by July 1. Is it going to be problematic? Yes, but at this point in my life, I’m looking for solutions. I’m not looking to make a political decision. I may have less customers because of it and it’s going to cost me a significant amount of money. If it’s the right thing to do, do it without the fear of consequences.”

Kimble said he isn’t a firm believer in the 1 ¢ times outside the city.

Thomas pointed to what Kimble said that the first due residents get the same services that the city residents do in the case of a fire.

Kimble said that the City of Bridgeport has $100 fire fee inside the city limits and $150 in first due.

“The first thought with that is when you go outside the city, the residents per square mile goes down and the costs go up for having those people on staff in a sub station to cover those areas.”

Skinner said if the city tackles increases police and fire fees, there needs to be language to where the fees increase after a certain number of years to keep up with the cost of doing business in the departments.

“What happens is in the same that happened in 2015 and the same that happened in 1983…they didn’t include any automatic increase,” he said. “Now we have to potentially take a drastic increase to get it to where it needs to be. To alleviate not only the political pressure in the future, but for us to not only maintain but continue to improve our services, we are doing a disservice to this community if we do not include an automatic increase in the time frame that we pick.”

Rylands said, “I don’t want to make political decisions.”

But Skinner said, “We are not going to be here forever in these positions. We could all be done at the next time. We are still going to live here. How do we help guarantee the fact that these services are going to continually be improved upon? Another group of people could come in here and say, ‘we don’t want to do anything with a fee structure; we are just going to let it ride’ and that is not what is best for our community.”

Rylands said it was possible people run on a platform of cutting fees and they come in and cut fees regardless.

Thomas said, “You can’t guarantee automatic increases. Philosophically, it sounds good.”

Councilwoman Pam Bucklew suggested the fees be revisited every three to four years.

City recorder Randy Sanders said he agreed with Rylands that the positions shouldn’t be funded out of the sales tax because it is not a guaranteed source of income.

Bucklew said part of the expenses considered for the sales tax was for emergency services like the police and fire departments.

“It is our obligation to take care of our citizens first,” she said. “I don’t see why we can’t hire the three firemen and in the meantime, start the first due fee.”

Skinner said he would work on scheduling a joint meeting with the Upshur County Commission.

Sanders said, “I’m adamant about us doing everything we can to work with the county commission. We have to approach it in an amiable fashion with positivity. We have to roll up our sleeves and go to work.”

When asked if the Upshur Commission would meet with the city council, commission president Kristie Tenney said Thursday, “Our door is always open.”

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