BUCKHANNON – For the second time this month, Buckhannon City Council on Thursday tabled a decision on whether to accept funding from the Upshur County Commission for the Buckhannon Fire Department.
City officials say they’re reluctant to accept the $15,000 the county has resolved to contribute to city fire department operations because they believe doing so could prevent the city from enacting a first due fire fee – i.e. a fee that would cover the cost of the BFD protecting areas outside city limits that fall within its primary territory.
According to a previous My Buckhannon story, the city received a resolution from the county saying the commission would begin allocating $15,000 “to the City of Buckhannon … for fire response within the first due fire service zone” on July 1, 2020.
At that meeting, Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble said he had concerns about the phrase “for fire response within the first due fire service zone.” Specifically, Kimble said he was worried that if the city accepted the resolution (and money), the county might later oppose council implementing a first due fire fee by arguing that they’d already paid for fire protection for the first due area via the $15,000 in question.
At Thursday’s meeting, city attorney Tom O’Neill said he’d spoken with county administrator Carrie Wallace and asked her if the commission would consider changing the resolution’s language.
“She said she wasn’t prepared to make any representations on behalf of the commission, but she did invite me or any other city representatives that wanted to, to come to their Jan. 16, 2020, meeting to talk about the issue of this language,” O’Neill told council. “I made our position pretty clear, that we’re not going to accept the funding with language in the resolution unchanged.”
Mayor David McCauley elaborated on the city’s hesitancy to accept the funds.
“Our trepidation in accepting this is frankly premised upon some models that could be part of our fire department’s long-term strategic plan to follow the path of Morgantown, Bridgeport, Elkins, Charleston, Wheeling,” McCauley said. “There’s a whole bunch of cities in West Virginia that have adopted first due ordinances, which allow cities to impose fire fees for people who live outside of the corporate limits but are addressed by the fire department that services the [city] corporate limits.”
“On down the pike, there will be some conversations about this,” he added. “Our concern with the way this resolution is phrased by the county commission, [is that] it may be an attempt to prevent, to stop, our consideration of a first due ordinance, and we don’t want to be compromised in our conversation about that.”
The city wants the county to strike the language “within the first due fire service zone,” the mayor said.
“If the Upshur County Commission wants to make a gift to the City of Buckhannon to supplement our expense of running the fire department, for those 40-some percent of all calls that occur outside the corporate limits, great,” the mayor said. “We would relish the opportunity to add that to our coffers; however, if we were to adopt a first due fire (fee) ordinance, we would be talking about the generation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue.”
O’Neill said the city officials’ concerns were not unfounded.
“This isn’t some nebulous concern that we have that this might happen; this has happened in other parts of the state, and we want to avoid it. There is controlling legal precedent for this,” he said.
McCauley said 65 percent of all fire service-related calls in Upshur County are answered by the BFD. He also said the $25 a month city and county residents pay is evenly split among seven agencies in county.
County residents who live outside the city pay the $25 fee (which can vary based on property size), while city residents pay an additional $36 annually, or $3 a month on their utility bills (which may also vary), which directly funds the city fire department.
O’Neill said a first due fee wouldn’t necessarily affect how much individual residents pay, but rather, how the fire fee is distributed.
“It’s a question of where it goes and how it’s distributed,” said O’Neill, who’s a member of the Upshur County Fire Board. “Now, it goes to the fire board. It’s a question of whether that fee is distributed seven ways evenly … or does that fee for anybody in Buckhannon’s zone come straight to Buckhannon? That’s the issue. People aren’t going to be paying anything different, at least as of right now. It’s just a matter of where the money goes.”
“The city’s general fund is subsidizing fire service outside of the corporate limits of the city,” the city attorney added. “That’s what this debate’s all about.”
McCauley asked O’Neill to reach out to Wallace a second time and suggested council table a decision on the $15,000 until a future meeting.
“If it is intended to be an outright contribution to our fire department operations, it can be done without this resolution,” he said. “If they want to give us a check for $15,000 and in the memo there’s ‘Buckhannon Fire Department,’ we’ll thank them for their generosity.”
The county recently transferred two trucks to the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department and had up until fiscal year 2020, paid the city $15,000 to maintain the trucks.