By Peggy Mackenzie
At the close of a single-issue, special meeting, held Tuesday evening at City Hall, Lewisburg City Council approved the second reading of the amended version of the rural fire service fee. The vote was 4-0 with one absentee. A third and final reading will be presented next week.
Mayor John Manchester first clarified that the amendments added to the document were a result of previous input from several county residents, principally, to consider changing the rate structure for commercial agriculture, and governmental and nonprofit properties, in the first due areas, which the city is mandated to cover. The fee for commercial buildings was reduced from 14 cents per square foot to 9 cents per square foot; for government and non-profits – including churches – the fee reduction changed from 14 cents per square foot to 3 cents per square foot.
Manchester also asserted that this is a fee, not a tax, as defined by the WV Supreme Court in the decision re: Davisson v. City of Bridgeport in 2014.
“This ordinance has generated a significant amount of interest,” said Manchester. “Looking back over the city council records, we found this conversation started in 1979. In 1968 the state fire marshal laid this on us [municipalities] and gave us the power, as the funding mechanism, for raising monies for the fire departments. Why the municipalities have taken so long to activate those fundraising efforts to resolve their fire department shortages is beyond me,” he said.
He added that, as mayor for the past 12 years, he and council were regularly presented with the annual costs of the fire department by Fire Chief Wayne Pennington. The outlying areas, represented by the first due area, persistently averaged between 40 and 45 percent of the budget. It finally got through to council to do something about it after Bridgeport was successfully awarded the right to impose a fee on their first due area.
He said, further, he was encouraged that the legislature is recognizing the needs of the fire departments throughout the county and state, and he said he was hopeful that their remarks will achieve real support for all the county’s fire departments.
This is not the first time the city has broached this problem. “We haven’t had our heads in the sand,” Manchester said. He cited the failed fire levy of two years ago and the times the city has approached the county for relief and support, only to hear that the commission would not recognize the needs of the county’s fire departments.
Before the vote, the four council members present added their voices to the discussion, beginning with Mark Etten, who referred to remarks made earlier by Pennington, stating the fire department has a long-term funding plan and a need to increase revenues with the criteria that it is fair and reasonable.
“We have looked at the fire department budget, looked at the funds accumulated for the new fire station, and looked at the percentage of calls outside the city limits. Regardless of whether calls are accident-related or a structure fire, it costs $569 to respond to an incident – any incident, which the city has funded since 1968.”
“I understand,” he said, “that residents outside city limits are not happy with the cost of fire services. The county has had ample time to apprise themselves on this issue, with no action taken to date.”
Council member Joseph Lutz reiterated that the state gave responsibility to the municipalities to raise fees for fire departments without benefit of any funding assistance. The cities, he said, had no choice but to comply.
“As the mother of a fireman, I will always support the fire department,” declared council member Beverly White. “They put their lives on the line for you.”
“Your feedback has helped us and made us more aware of your concerns,” said council member Heather Blake. “We have listened and made changes.”
“We’ve been talking about this issue for 30 years,” said city recorder Shannon Beatty. “As representatives for the city, it is the city council’s job to take on the responsibilities handed to us.”
Council member Josh Baldwin was unable to attend the meeting.
Manchester spoke briefly to what he termed were “several misconceptions” heard during the public hearing portion of the meeting, which he concentrated in a single remark: “How is it that anyone could suggest the department doesn’t have to answer all the calls that come in?”