BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon City Council is considering raising the fire fee within city limits – possibly doubling it – to pay for the hiring of three new full-time firefighters.
During a special meeting Monday, six of the seven council members indicated they either supported or were not opposed to raising the $3 per month municipal fire fee for residents within city limits. However, Buckhannon mayor Robbie Skinner said he would rather the city use sales tax revenue to fund the hiring of the three career firefighters for the Buckhannon Fire Department.
Those two options are among many council is considering, which also include implementing a first due fire fee and working with the county commission to raise the county fire fee, since nearly half the calls the BFD responds to come from outside city limits. Raising the city fire fee would only apply to residents and businesses inside the city itself.
The May 17 work session was scheduled following a series of contentious meetings that began in March during the 2021-2022 fiscal year budget sessions, when Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble presented council with a needs analysis that he said indicated the department needed to hire three additional paid staff members. Kimble said scheduling three firefighters per shift – currently, only two paid staff work per 24-hour shift – was necessary to meet minimum safety protocols for fighting a structure fire, particularly given that the BFD is working toward achieving accreditation through the Commission on Fire Accreditation International.
Kimble estimated the cost of hiring the new staff members would amount to about $200,000 annually, which would bring the fire department’s budget from close to $800,000 to about $1 million annually.
Although the $200,000 had originally been included in a draft of the 2021-2022 fiscal year budget, it was cut at the final budget meeting because council was unable to agree on what revenue stream it should come from.
At Monday’s meeting, council asked city finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins to calculate how much the city would need to raise the city fire fee in order for it to cover all or the majority of that $200,000.
Councilman CJ Rylands asked Jenkins to crunch some numbers prior to council meeting again.
“What percentage of dedicated funds are we comfortable with [to pay for the new hires]?” Rylands asked. “And then the rest comes out of general fund. How much would city fire fee need to be raised to cover the proposed $1 million budget, or at least a large chunk of the annual cost of three new career firefighters?”
A critical timeline, waning volunteerism
At Monday’s meeting, Kimble reviewed the rationale for his request.
The main reason the department wants three paid staff working at a time stems from how crucial a quick, efficient response is when a structure fire breaks out, he said. Using the recent fire that devastated the Holly Apartments in Adrian as an example, Kimble said responding to a fire in the department’s fire district takes the BFD about nine-and-a-half minutes or less 90 percent of the time. Kimble said he typically arrives a few seconds after Engine 1, but the lapse between then and when the next fire truck arrives is problematic.
“From that point to the next point is probably to the 17-minute mark before anybody else is coming, so the need was really about that,” he said. “You’ve got a crew there by themselves, just three on a house fire or a large building fire.”
According to safety protocols, fire departments are supposed to maintain a ‘two-in, two-out’ standard, meaning there are two firefighters who enter a burning structure while two remain outside to rescue them if the situation escalates.
“With the Adrian fire the other day, we arrived at that fire first,” Kimble said. “We were a minute ahead of Rock Cave Fire Department and about four minutes ahead of the Adrian Fire Department, but it was still minimal [manpower] to begin with; there was myself and two on the engine, so that critical timeline of saving somebody in a fire or extinguishing the fire quickly – is the [issue].”
Kimble also asked council to consider that the number of volunteer firefighters is trending drastically downward.
“I’ve been in the fire service for over 30 years, and it’s in desperate need right now countywide,” the fire chief said. “The whole entire fire service nationwide has problems, especially with [recruiting and retaining] volunteers in small communities.”
Kimble said volunteer firefighters are getting older and fewer.
“Normally, during the day, it’s 60- and 70-year-old people,” he said. “Are they showing up? Yes. Are they trying? Yes, but can they actually provide the kind of service that is sometimes needed? A lot of times, no. Do they have the training mechanisms in place to put them in a position to be able to do what they need to do? Probably not in a lot of small communities.”
Skinner noted the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department began the 2021 calendar year with 18 volunteers, but that number has decreased to just 14 volunteers in five months.
“It is rapidly declining, even as we speak,” he said.
Dollars – and what makes sense?
Although Skinner and council said they agree that the three new firefighters are a needed addition, they have yet to come to a consensus on how to pay for it.
Since March, a number of options have been bandied about, including using general fund revenue (including the 1 percent sales tax), advocating for the $25-dollar county fire fee to be raised, using money recouped from 2020 pandemic funding a year, and instituting a first-due fire fee.
While 60 percent of the BFD’s calls for structure fires are in the city, the other 40 percent are outside city limits. As a result, several council members have been adamant that county residents ought to either pay a higher county fire fee – the $25 residential fee has not been raised in about 20 years – and if the county fire fee isn’t increased, that council should consider implementing a first-due fee.
But because of the way Upshur County is populated, with Buckhannon as its nexus and most county residents living in the close, surrounding area, a first due fee would impact the other six county volunteer fire departments’ funding. That’s because if the residents in the Buckhannon Fire Department’s ‘first due’ area – i.e., the area that’s the city fire department’s primary responsibility but is outside of city bounds – would no longer be paying a county fire fee to the Upshur County Fire Board.
As a result, the amount of money collected to be evenly distributed to the all-volunteer departments would be lower.
Rylands explained implementing a first-due fee “represents a counter-assault on the existing system, because anyone we charge a first-due fire fee to will not be paying the county fire fee, which would diminish their (the fire board’s) capacity to fund all the other departments.”
Councilman David Thomas said he supports raising the city fire fee but wants to also ask the county commission and/or Upshur County Fire Board to also raise the county fire fee. (The commission has stated they believe the $25 residential and $50 commercial county fire fee is outdated.)
“I think it’s absolutely necessary to have a level playing field,” Thomas said. “I do think we need to increase our city fire fee some time within the next 12 to 18 to 24 months, and at the same time, challenge the commission and the fire board and say, ‘Hey folks, you’ve never had an increase in the fire fee for the county beyond the city limits, so let’s wake up and be in the real world.’”
“I can’t understand why people living outside the city limits don’t understand that they have a responsibility to take care of themselves also and that we should not be doing it as city residents,” he added.
Kimble explained that the commission was advised by its attorney that raising the county fire fee would require a petition bearing the signatures of 10 percent of registered voters in the county.
“If there’s any opposition – 30 percent [of registered voters] within 45 days, then it goes to an election,” Kimble said.
While many of the BFD calls — such as the Holly Apartments fire — originate outside the city, Skinner said the county commission feels the hiring of the three firefighters is an issue for municipal government.
“These will be city hires, and the way the county commissioners look at it is this: they’ve told me if they need to hire additional staffing at the courthouse, they don’t come running to city hall asking us to contribute to it … so why are we looking to the county commission to help with it?” the mayor said.
Rylands said council should act unilaterally.
“We need to be unilateral to some degree and decisive and then other things will fall into place as a result of those actions, but I think trying to pre-negotiate some kind of compromise is wishful thinking,” Rylands said. “We need to take unilateral action in both the process of hiring and how to pay for it, and then whatever else happens, happens.”
Several council members said they staunchly oppose using the sales tax every year to pay for the new hires, noting that sales tax money could fluctuate with people’s spending habits. Instead, they believe a dedicated funding source should cover most of the $200,000.
“Creating a permanent long-term liability with transitory monies is not the right approach,” Rylands said. “We would be making permanent hires with transitory money” if sales tax is used.
The city has collected over $1.6 million in sales tax to date, with the first quarter of 2021 amounting to about $431,000 – almost double that collected during the same time frame during the pandemic in 2020.
However, Skinner said that no funding source – including the B&O tax and other fees – is ever guaranteed.
“If we’re talking about solid foundations, we don’t have one guaranteed revenue stream. Those don’t exist, B&O is not guaranteed, I mean, our population decreased in the last Census,” he said. “We look at sales tax as this precious nugget because it’s a new revenue stream that we’ve just started receiving, but we have to keep in mind, too, that we got that to help run this city. Every fee that is collected help to run this city, none of them are guaranteed. They could all have interruptions at some point that we’re not prepared for.”
City recorder Randy Sanders said he believes the majority of the sales tax revenue should be utilized for one-time expenses, particularly to upgrade the city’s infrastructure. Councilwoman Pam Bucklew, however, said emergency services needs to be the city’s first priority.
City fire fee could double
Rylands said council may need to double the city fire fee from the current $3 a month, or $36 a year, to $6 a month or $72 a year. (The amount businesses in the city pay in a fire fee depends on their gross receipts.)
“If we’re not going to initiate the first due, then we have to double the fire fee in the city limits,” Rylands said. “I’m not going to agree to spending $200,000 without having some dedicated funding source.”
Bucklew and councilwoman Mary Albaugh said they’d support doubling the city fire fee.
“That’s one pack of cigarettes,” Bucklew said.
“This is for fire protection – we’ve got to have it,” Albaugh emphasized. “This is the only way we’re gong to have income to pay for this, at least partially.”
Skinner said whatever council decides, he wants to move quickly.
“I want us to respond to the need and I want us to help improve the services to our community because this is a fundamental service that we provide to our community, and our community continues to get older, it continues to become more needy, and volunteerism continues to drop.”
“This is the only department in the city that relies more on volunteers than it does on paid career staffing,” Skinner added. “The police department does not, the water department does not, the sewer department does not – but this one does.”
Following Monday’s meeting Skinner said would rather use sales tax revenue to pay for the new hires than raise the city fire fee.
“I don’t want to raise a fee just to raise a fee,” he said. “I think there needs to be a more thorough analysis. I’m open to looking at [raising the city fire fee], but I think we should look at all the city fees and we should have more data.”