During a public hearing lasting close to two and a half hours, the city’s rural fire service fee ordinance was a contested topic at the Lewisburg City council meeting Tuesday evening, with one citizen calling it “taxation without representation.”
Several citizens remarked that the fire department’s rural calls are mostly for traffic accidents and not fires. To corroborate that, the statistics for LVFD 2014 annual report showed the department handled a total of 18 fires in 2014, while there were 114 traffic accidents listed, plus 318 medical assists.
“Under the surface is the reality that only 2 percent of calls in the rural areas are for fires, yet rural residents’ costs are going to rise by 35 percent for fire protection,” said Jack Tuckwiller, a Richlands resident.
Steve Clendenen, who stated he owns properties within city limits and the first due area, said his estimate of his fire fees would amount to $10,000 per year. He said there were likely another eight property owners in the same boat. He suggested capping the commercial property fees.
Tuckwiller urged that Lewisburg take the problem to the county. “There needs to be a different way to do this to make it work for the whole county,” he said. Furthermore, he said, “Other municipalities will likely want to do the same thing as Lewisburg. “You need to go to the county.”
Clendenen suggested, pointedly, the city ought to go through the planning commission rather than present the problem directly to the county commissioners themselves.
Another concern was the perception that the fire fee review board was “stacked with city residents” and had no representation from the rural areas. Cost estimates for a new fire station also received criticism. A new structure and site purchase for the department was estimated to come to $5 million.
To help demonstrate some understanding of the rate fee, Fire Chief Wayne Pennington gave a slide presentation showing the range of in-city and outside city residences together with the fees. He maintained that fire service fees should be “fair and equitable,” and that all residents benefit with lower homeowner insurance premium costs with a department able to meet its service expectations.
The break-down of the burden of cost of operations in the LVFD 2014 annual report showed the city of Lewisburg residents provided nearly 88 percent of annual costs ($412,143), and the rural population provided nearly 3 percent ($12,705), with the remainder of fire department revenue for 2014 coming from state insurance sur-tax and donations. The report noted that the county commission provided $0 percent. Pennington said, annual donations drives are not adequate. Out of 2,872 donation request mailouts in 2014, only 638 returns were generated with an average amount of $35 received.
The new fees, if implemented 100 percent, would generate more than $370,500 a year, potentially doubling the department’s total budget to nearly $800,000. While citizens remarked that that was a lot of money, as cited in the annual report, it would go far in covering the department’s burgeoning budget demands for training, equipment replacements and repairs, funds for a new building, hiring additional firefighters, and providing for the health and safety of firefighters. The department currently has four paid professional staffers, including the chief, plus an additional 14 unpaid volunteer firefighters and 19 associate members.
Pennington went on to note the new growth in the rural areas, particularly with a heavy development in the Brush Road area, where several new neighborhoods have three-story homes going in, is becoming a stress for the fire department.
The department, he added, is mandated to answer all calls within the first response area. The department cannot differentiate between fires, accidents and medical assists when their services are needed. Those calls are often “life-threatening situations.”
“It is clear that we are faced with a real dilemma of how to assure the public within the whole district the confidence level that the fire service is going to be there to provide for their needs, and how to fund that,” Mayor John Manchester said. “We need to find a way to share the economical equity of this situation.”
The council ended up voting against passing the fire fee ordinance at the second reading, and instead, approved to continue consideration of Ordinance 250 until the June council meeting. There will not be a second public hearing at that meeting, but, Manchester said, “The council will take the comments made this evening by the public under advisement.”