City budget: Council considers expanding fire department, asking county residents to chip in

BUCKHANNON — As Buckhannon City Council works to finalize a more than $5 million budget for 2021-22, emergency services and public safety are high on its list of priorities.

Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble asked council to invest in three additional full-time career firefighters, which would cost the city just over $170,000 in salaries and benefits and bring the fire department’s budget up from last year’s roughly $793,000 to about $1 million.

The fire department currently employees six full-time career firefighters, plus the chief. Kimble said hiring three additional firefighters would enable the department to have three people working at all times.

“I’m not here to tell you who has the money or how we’re going to fund this — or if we can fund it — but we need to figure something out,” Kimble said.

Because the department covers an area encompassing roughly 54 square miles — much of it outside city limits — Kimble floated the idea of a first-due fire fee so that county residents who receive emergency services from the department would also help financially support it.

County residents do pay a flat $25 fire fee annually, which is split equally between all seven departments in the county. However, Kimble has said he feels it is outdated and needs to be increased because the cost of operating a career fire department — i.e. a fire department with paid staff — has gone up significantly in the past two decades.

During his proposal at council’s working meeting Tuesday, Kimble said securing more financial support from the Upshur County Commission or through an increased across-the-board county fire fee is preferable to implementing a first due fee, but regardless, with only two full-time firefighters on shift most of the time, the BFD isn’t meeting the minimum safety protocols for fighting a structure fire.

“We’ve kicked the can for six years, since 2015,” Kimble said. “I think we need to have a committee with myself and a representative from the city and the county, and maybe we can try to come up with a solution for this problem,” Kimble said.

Kimble said the department is struggling with lower volunteerism (they’ve lost more than half their volunteers over the past 25 years); an uptick in calls, many of which are outside city limits; the BFD’s designation as an emergency medical services provider; and the fact that the professional standards that must be met are higher and training is more rigorous.

Specifically, hiring three more firefighters would enable the department to abide by the rule of “two-in, two-out” at most fires, meaning there must be two people inside a structure and another two outside to rescue them if something happens.

“Adding one firefighter per shift, will reduce the risk to firefighters because of the implementation of the two-in, two-out rule,” Kimble told council. “You’re sending a fire truck out 90 percent of the time with two people … and for about 6 to 7 minutes, those two people are at a structure fire by themselves. The first five minutes of a fire dictates whether you’re going to have a good one or a bad one.”

Mayor Robbie Skinner recommended council consider hiring the three additional firefighters, regardless of whether county residents help with any funding. The cost to taxpayers would be about $170,000 per year.

“I would like to propose that we do consider the staffing increases for the Buckhannon Fire Department [notwithstanding] the first-due fire fee,” Skinner said. “We represented to the community that the largest chunk of sales tax would be used for enhancing public safety, and I believe that in making good on our promise to the community, that we should invest in this.” 

Councilman CJ Rylands said the city needs to discuss “the elephant in the room” – that is, asking the county to finically support the fire department on an annual basis in some way.

“For me, this all comes down to, how do we pay for it?” Rylands said. “We’ve got to talk about the elephant in the room, so I’m all for it.”

Skinner said he was ‘on board’ with eventually pursuing a new first-due fire fee for county residents. As noted above, currently, county residents pay a flat $25 per year, which is split between all the departments in Upshur County.

Councilwoman Mary Albaugh said the city always circles back to the need for more paid firefighters during its annual budget meetings.

“We have hit and missed on this for the longest time, ever since I’ve been on council, and I think we need to do something,” Albaugh said. “Twenty-five dollars for a resident of Upshur County for a fire fee is ridiculous, it really is.”

Rylands said people consider two factors when deciding whether to live in the city or the county – connectivity and delivery of emergency services.

“If we’re ever going to have any developable property outside the city limits … we’re going to have to offer those two things,” he said. “We haven’t taken any action because it’s politically challenging.”

Kimble also requested that each current career firefighter’s salary be raised by $1,000 and asked for funds to purchase computers for volunteer firefighter training, a StairMaster for testing, and clothing, safety equipment and other items for members of the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department.

Read the first part of the city budget story here.

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