City council tables county resolution allocating $15K to fire department, citing concerns about ‘strings attached’

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BUCKHANNON – City officials on Thursday tabled taking any action on a county resolution gifting $15,000 to the City of Buckhannon, saying they wanted to ensure there were “no strings attached” to the allocation.

Buckhannon City Council voted to table the county’s resolution after learning Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble and city attorney Tom O’Neill had concerns about the ramifications of accepting the money due to the phrasing of one paragraph in the resolution. The phrase Kimble and O’Neill were wary of says the commission will begin allocating $15,000 “to the City of Buckhannon … for fire response within the first due fire service zone” July 1, 2020.

The concern stems from the fact that the city has recently been contemplating enacting a first due fire fee to cover the cost of its paid career firefighters responding to fires, car wrecks and medical emergencies within the 50 square miles that make up its first due area. The city fire department’s first due area includes the entire area within city limits and extends beyond them.

Kimble said he was worried that if the city accepted the resolution (and money) as is, the county might later oppose council taking action to implement a first due fire fee by arguing that the county had already paid for fire protection for the first due area via the $15,000 in question.

The issue stems from a recent property transfer that took place between the commission and the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department in which the commission gave two fire trucks – a 2003 Kenworth Pumper and a 1996 Smeal Freightliner Pumper – to the volunteer department. Annually, through the current 2020 fiscal year, the commission has allocated $15,000 to maintain those trucks.

However, beginning in fiscal year 2021, the commission resolved to allocate the $15,000 that was previously used to maintain trucks “to the City of Buckhannon, West Virginia, for fire response within the first due fire service zone, pending annual budgetary approval.”

At Thursday’s meeting, Kimble said he was concerned about what he perceives as the county’s dwindling contribution to emergency services in Upshur County.

“The trend with the county commission over the years has been to try to remove themselves from emergency services,” Kimble said. He noted the county had previously supplied the city’s career fire department with $20,000-plus dollars to pay for part of a career firefighter’s salary but now no longer does.

“They got rid of the fire trucks that they helped purchase,” Kimble said. “The trend just scares me. The wording of the contribution scares me. If the $15,000 was a contribution other than for ‘first due fire protection’… if the wording was different, I might think a little different.”

Councilman David Thomas asked Kimble if he believed there was “an ulterior motive” in the county’s gift.

“As long as it says, ‘for first due fire protection,’ I would not accept it,” Kimble said. “That’s my opinion.”

Kimble suggested commissioners reword the resolution to say the $15K would cover the cost of insurance on a fire truck or strike the phrase “for first due fire protection” in some other fashion.

“Because now, they have released those two trucks to the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department and that organization is going to incur some costs, so that’s something we’re going to talk in the future about turning those trucks over to the city,” Kimble said. “What I want people to understand is, one of those two trucks … was completely purchased by the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire department — $139,647 dollars – in 2006.”

He said the city’s volunteer department put $20,000 down on the other truck and has been footing the bill for equipment added to the trucks.

“Every bit of equipment on those two trucks is owned by the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department, so [if] people think that the county bought those trucks and then maintained them and gave them to the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department, it’s not correct,” he said. “Yeah, the county had some money in the first one, and they’ve provided fuel and insurance for them since purchased … but people have to understand [how much responsibility the paid city department has in the county].”

Ninety-five percent of all Upshur County businesses are in the city’s first due area, and about 59-62 percent of the county’s population live there, too, Kimble said.

“We respond to more calls in our district than the other fire departments put together, and that’s not to take away from any of those (departments), but we just have a lot more responsibility, and it costs a lot more to do business,” Kimble said, adding the BFD is required to maintain 15,000 feet of fire hose, three pumper trucks and a ladder truck. “No other fire department in Upshur County is required to have the equipment nor the training or has the responsibility that the Buckhannon Fire Department has … and it takes money to maintain a service.”

Mayor David McCauley said he didn’t believe any conditions were attached to the city’s acceptance of the money but urged caution, noting that the city is examining the possibility of instituting a first due fire fee as part of the BFD’s long-term strategic plan.

“Everyone knows that one of the things we will be talking about going forward as part of the strategic plan for our fire department operations is looking at a first due fire fee,” McCauley said. “What we don’t want to do is somehow have someone creatively being able to say, ‘Oh no, you can’t do that because we gave you that $15,000 gift.’”

Finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins spoke on behalf of O’Neill, the city’s attorney, who was unable to attend Thursday’s meeting for medical reasons.

“I spoke to Tom earlier, and he said that if asked, he would recommend that the council decline that because of the wording in the resolution,” Jenkins said. “He said it appears that the $15,000 is to cover the first due area.”

According to West Virginia Code, counties may contract cities to provide fire protection, Kimble said.

“And with that wording, ‘first due’ [that could be saying] they’re paying for fire protection outside the city,” Kimble said.

Once the resolution was brought to the table, McCauley said he didn’t want city officials to appear ungrateful.

“I also don’t want to look stupid that we are declining what could be a well-intending $15,000 gift to our fire operations,” he said. “We don’t want to send the wrong message to our friends down the street that we are less than receptive to accepting a gift … however, we, in exercising an abundance of caution, want to make sure there are no strings attached to this gift, and if they can rearticulate it in such a way that there wouldn’t appear to be any strings, we’d be most happy to accept it.”

McCauley suggested tabling acceptance of the resolution until council’s Dec. 19 meeting, saying the delay would give commissioners ample opportunity to decide whether they’re willing to reword the resolution.

Councilman Robbie Skinner asked McCauley if he’d communicate the proposed change to commissioners, and the mayor said he would.

Councilman Mary Albaugh made a motion to table action on the resolution until Dec. 19, which was seconded by Councilman CJ Rylands prior to passing unanimously.

On Friday, county administrator Carrie Wallace said council is free to accept or decline the gift, but the rewording will be up to the commission.

“The commission gifted the two fire trucks they owned and purchased in conjunction with the BVFD to the BVFD by way of a resolution and donation/transfer agreement,” Wallace stated. “Once the BVFD signed the donation/transfer agreement, the second resolution regarding the $15,000 to the City of Buckhannon went into effect.”

“As I understand, the mayor will be contacting the commission to discuss rewording the agreement,” she added. “As the commission’s resolution currently stands, it is their intent to annually provide $15,000 to the city for fire response within their first due area which is the same reason former commissions purchased the trucks from the information we have gathered. Of course, the city would not be required to accept the funds if they don’t feel comfortable doing so.”