Commission’s legal counsel to firefighters’ association: yes, fire fee hike is feasible

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Firefighters Association asked, and on Thursday, the Upshur County Commission’s legal counsel answered.

Their question pertained to how – and even if – the county fire fee could be increased to cover the surging cost of running rural volunteer fire departments.

The answer is yes – but that answer is contingent on firefighters’ ability to collect the signatures of 10 percent of registered voters.

According to a previous story, UCFFA president and Adrian Volunteer Department chief Rick Harlow submitted a letter to the commission asking how volunteer firefighter departments might seek what the UCFFA views as a necessary fire fee increase.

In his letter, Harlow cited an increase in calls for service in addition to inflation in the prices of equipment, such as turnout gear, fire trucks and more.

For an official response, county administrator Carrie Wallace turned to Kay, Casto and Chaney, PLLC, the legal firm it keeps on retainer.

At Thursday’s weekly meeting, Wallace told commission president Sam Nolte and commissioners Troy A. “Buddy” Brady and Terry Cutright that attorney William Swann of the firm had submitted a written response.

In the letter, Swann wrote 10 percent of registered voters must sign a petition requesting a fire fee increase and file that petition with the county clerk.

Then, an ordinance calling for a fee hike would need to be drafted, and the commission would be required to publish a Class II legal advertisement in the county newspaper notifying residents of the ordinance.

However, registered voters not in favor of a fire fee increase could theoretically prevent or at least stall the passage of such an ordinance by gathering a counter-petition protesting the fee increase.

The protest petition would have to be signed by 30 percent of registered voters and similarly filed with the county clerk within 45 days of the Class II legal ad expiring.

“If 30 percent of the qualified voters in the county sign a petition and file it with the clerk of the county commission (county clerk) within forty-five days after the publication expiration,” then the question would be turned over to voters at the next election, according to Swann’s Oct. 2 letter.

In that case, the proposed fee hike could only be effected if a simple majority of voters ratified it at the next election, the letter explains.

Should the fire fee proposal ultimately fail, the current county fire fee would remain in place.

The fee is now set at $5 per lot for vacant property parcels of 5 acres or greater; $25 per single residential building; $25 per residential rental unit; and $50 for commercial or institutional buildings.

Swann also addressed the UCFFA’s question about trying to pass a “progressive” fire fee increase ordinance, or one that would include a built-in mechanism to raise the fee as time passes and the cost of firefighting and the equipment needed to do it rises.

The attorney advised against doing so, saying such an ordinance might confuse voters at the ballot box and could result in defeat of the measure.

But Swann noted upping the fire fee isn’t the only way to bring in more revenue for volunteer departments.

The current ordinance could be amended “to capture more revenue now and in the future” by expanding it to assess a fire fee “on things like active natural gas well pads and compressor stations, in addition to communications towers,” Swann wrote. “I suspect that natural gas well pads and compression stations, in addition to communications towers, engage in activity which requires county fire service personnel to respond.

“Therefore, an assessment on these types of property seems appropriate,” he concluded.

The commission reviewed the response but did not comment on it.

The prospect of an increase surfaced as the topic of discussion at the UCFFA’s July meeting, prompting Harlow to write the letter.

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