Rural Fire Service Fee still proceeding through Lewisburg Council
By Peggy Mackenzie
The Lewisburg City Council recently voted to approve the first reading of a Rural Fire Service Fee to generate revenue from rural areas within the Lewisburg Fire Department’s (LFD) First Due Area (FDA). Two more ordinance readings are scheduled; one at the next council meeting on May 19, and the final reading and public hearing will be on June 16. If passed, the fire service fee will go into effect July 1.
If approved on the third reading, the fee will be assessed on owners of property sited within a 90 square-mile coverage area designated by the West Virginia Fire Commission. It includes the unincorporated communities of Maxwelton and Caldwell, the areas around Brush Road/Stonehouse Road, Fairview Road/Unus Road, Richlands and the Lewisburg side of the Muddy Creek Mountain Road area.
Fire Chief Wayne Pennington says he sees no revenue from those areas, but he is still required by law to provide the service. All other forms of fundraising have failed to generate enough revenue for day-to-day operations and capital projects, including an excess fire levy in 2013, which failed to pass.
“The ordinance will be fair and equitable for everyone who receives services by our department,” said Pennington. This is not an original idea by the department, he said. In January, 2014, the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the same type of ordinance in Bridgeport. Pennington pursued a similar ordinance soon after the ruling.
Services provided by LFD to those rural areas account for nearly half of the calls the department receives each year. According to the LFD’s annual report, the expenses in 2014 totaled $469,858. The city pays for almost 83 percent with donations and state insurance surtax making up the remaining costs.
The residents in the city already pay their part, but it’s not enough, said Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester. “How do we maintain a modern fire service; how do we build a new station? The one we have is crumbling right now. How do we keep outfitting firefighters to provide services for the district we’re responsible for?”
The proposed rural fire service fee will be levied against owners of “all vacant acreage, residential, commercial, industrial, governmental and other buildings of every kind and nature, regardless of types of construction” that are outside the municipality but within the FDA.
There are two fee tiers for owners of one- or two-family residential units under the proposed ordinance. Units measuring under 2,500-square-feet will be assessed a fee of $120 per year, and units that are 2,500-square-feet or over will be assessed $144 annually. Detached structures exceeding 1,000-square-feet located on those properties will result in an additional fee assessment of $75 a year.
Owners of commercial, industrial, governmental, multi-family residential unit or other building could pay 14 cents per square-foot annually. Owners of vacant acreage will also have a fee to pay because Pennington says putting out forest fires requires special equipment. The acreage fees range from $6 to $48 per year, depending on the size of the lot.
There are exemptions for people who can’t afford to pay the service fee, Pennington said. Those exemptions are based on financial need, and the form can be picked up at City Hall in Lewisburg. The proposed ordinance also establishes a five-member Fire Service Appeals Board which will meet with residents having any objections and will interpret the ordinance and render decisions based on that interpretation.