Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble at Wednesday's working budget session emphasizing that Upshur County, like many other areas, is facing a volunteer crisis.

Debate over how to pay new city firefighters intensifies

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BUCKHANNON – Three weeks after the Buckhannon fire chief proposed adding three paid, full-time firefighters to the City of Buckhannon’s ranks, the debate over how to compensate them has not yet been resolved.

In fact, it has only intensified.

With its 2021-2022 municipal budget due to the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office by March 28 and only one more council meeting before then, Buckhannon City Council members were still at odds during a special budget meeting Wednesday over what stream of revenue will be used to pay the potential new hires fire chief J.B. Kimble says the department desperately needs to meet minimum safety protocols.

The crux of the debate centers on whether the city will use its 1 percent sales tax; implement a first due area fire fee; or work with the Upshur County Commission to reach some alternative solution to bring the BFD up to nine full-time paid firefighters plus the chief.

Mayor Robbie Skinner said the problem affects the entire community, as was evident during a meeting with all the volunteer fire chiefs and city and county officials earlier in the week.

“I think [it’s] clear that the volunteer fire departments want to support our City of Buckhannon Fire Department in our endeavor to improve the service offered to our community,” Skinner said, “but there is certainly significant concern over how that would be funded and specifically with the first due because it does make a direct impact on the funding that is allocated to the volunteer departments in our county … This is a community problem, and it needs a community solution.”

County officials: First due fee implementation would detrimentally impact funding for volunteer-only departments

According to previous stories, because the Buckhannon Fire Department covers an area encompassing roughly 54 square miles — much of it outside city limits — Kimble has floated the idea of a first-due fire fee so that county residents who receive emergency services from the city fire department would also help financially support it.

Kimble has also shared statistics showing that about 40 percent of the calls the city department responds to are outside of city limits. For example, during his budget presentation in February, Kimble presented council with data indicating that of all fire alarms in Upshur County in 2019-2020, the Buckhannon Fire Department and Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department responded to 46 percent of them. The next highest response rate was listed as Adrian Volunteer Fire Department, which responded to 17 percent, and the remaining five departments responded to anywhere from 5-9 percent of fire alarms.

Upshur County Commission President Kristie Tenney and county administrator Carrie Wallace attended the city’s March 10 working budget session to advocate against the city implementing that first due fire fee. They said doing so would take away much-needed funding for the other six fire departments in the county, which are comprised entirely of volunteers and no paid staff.

Upshur County Administrator Carrie Wallace addresses council members about the potential effect of a first due fee on volunteer departments in the county.

Wallace pointed out that based on the county fire fee clerk’s calculations, if the people and commercial/institutional entities in the first due area paid a fee to the city instead of to the Upshur County Fire Board as they do now, that would dramatically reduce the funding allocated to the other six departments, which residents in outlying areas of the county rely on.

Based on 2020 bills and collections, the Upshur County Fire Board accumulated about $267,000 through the county residential and commercial fire fees.

“The estimate based on the circle that you found on the map (the first due area) estimates that first due fire fee will take away $152,435 of that $267,000 total, and that would leave $114,640 remaining,” Wallace said.

In other words, residents and entities in the first due area would pay a fee to the city instead of to the county fire board, which would mean the county fire board would have much less money to divide between the county departments.

After paying a variety of other costs involved in running the fire fee clerk’s office, about $62,000 would remain. Then, if the Upshur County Fire Board opted to keep the maximum amount in its emergency reserve fund of $30,000, only about $32,000 would be left to split between the seven volunteer fire departments in the county, Wallace said. (There is also a Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department which operates in conjunction with the BFD’s paid staff.)

“That would leave an estimated balance of $32,143 to fund the seven fire departments in the county on an annual basis, including the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department, and that is not each; that is total to fund the seven volunteer departments,” Wallace said. “So, in reference to what’s best for the community, I would ask that you consider the community as a whole – as in Upshur County – not the community that you’re responsible for overseeing within city lines.”

Fire fees explained: City and county

Currently, city residents pay $3 a month or $36 a year for fire service to the city on their utility bills, while residents outside city limits pay $25 annually to the county fire board, which then distributes that funding equally among the seven volunteer departments. The county’s fire fee ordinance requires businesses and institutions to pay a flat fire fee of $50, while the city’s commercial/institutional fire fee is calculated based on gross receipts, i.e., the amount a business brings in annually without considering expenses.

In general, the city fire fee increases $5 a month for every additional $50,000 in gross receipts a commercial entity amasses annually. For instance, while a business that brings in $50,000 to $100,000 annually pays $15 a month – or $180 annually – Buckhannon Walmart pays $75 a month or $900 a year, city finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins said Thursday.

In comparison, residents and businesses in the ‘first due area’ – the area outside corporate limits that is the BFD’s primary responsibility – follow the county fire fee ordinance and residents pay $25 a year while businesses pay $50 a year. However, in a recent public statement to My Buckhannon, Upshur County Commissioners agreed with city council’s sentiment that the county fire fee ordinance, which was last updated in 2001, is outdated and said they’d be willing to consider increasing fees.

Councilman David Thomas at Wednesday’s meeting told Tenney and Wallace the county fire fee has been “outdated for years and years and years.”

“I believe in a level playing field … when Weyerhaeuser and Kroger are in the first due and they’re paying $50 a year, and Walmart is paying [significantly more, $900] a year, that’s not fair,” Thomas said.

Wallace reiterated that the county commissioners agreed those fees were outdated; were willing to revisit the fire fee ordinance in conjunction with the Upshur County Fire Board; and would be happy to meet with council on a regular basis to come up with a solution with respect to adequate fire service coverage in the county.

Ideas for funding new full-time career Buckhannon Fire Department firefighters

Both Thomas and councilman CJ Rylands said they were reluctant to use the city sales tax, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2020 (and has amounted to approximately $1.6 million since then) to fund the three new hires.

Rylands said the city needs a “dedicated funding source” that is immune to people’s spending habits.

“The addition of three firefighters is a recurring permanent expense, and we should have a funding source that should be dedicated 100 percent to the fire department because sales tax could fluctuate,” he said. “We’re going to [have] increased costs, and they’re going to stay with us permanently and probably grow to some point, so we have to have a revenue source dedicated to fund that expense.”

Rylands asked if the commission had brainstormed any solutions.

“It’s our problem right now, I guess, but it could be your problem if we do a first due fee of any kind, so what are the options from your point of view?” Rylands asked Tenney and Wallace.

Wallace outlined several ideas:

  • The city could use its sales tax to pay entirely for the new firefighters.
  • The city could turn part of the amount collected in first due fees over to the other volunteer fire departments to make up the difference. “If the city were to implement the first due fire fee, possibly taking a percentage of that allocation that they collect and turning it over to the fire board to then continue funding the rest of those volunteer departments [would be a possibility],” she said.
  • Per state code, the city could simply donate money to the Upshur County Fire Board for the operation of the other volunteer fire departments.
  • The city could use a portion of sales tax; increase the fire fee for city residents; and the county fire board/commission could consider an increase in the county fire, which Tenney said would not only help the all-volunteer county departments but also the Buckhannon Volunteer Fire Department. Tenney added the commission believes, based on their attorney’s advice and state code, that the county fire board itself – and not the commission – must initiate the process for raising the county fire fee.
Upshur County Commission President Kristie Tenney speaks to council at Wednesday’s meeting.

Skinner said the issue with a first due fee is that the majority of residents in the county who don’t live in city limits, live in a “tight nucleus” around the city, with the majority located north of Buckhannon-Upshur High School.

“Outside of [people and businesses in the first due] and city limits, we have 10,000 people left, and [first due residents] would have to pay a high first due fee to make up the difference,” he said. “As it stands, the way a first due fee in Bridgeport or Elkins works, there’s no way to operate fire departments here the way they currently operate if we did that.”

City recorder Randy Sanders pledged not to vote for any measure “that would put county volunteer fire departments out of business.”

“But I also need to find a way that we can do this with income that is solvent, that’s not based upon cyclical income that goes up and down with how people shop and how people spend money,” he added.

Sanders suggested combining several funding sources, specifically, “a mix of 1 percent sales tax, raising slightly – only slightly – fire fees within corporate limits, and working with the county on getting them to bring in fees to help their agencies.”

“I am open to exploring first due, but we would have to commit to fully fund county fire departments to the [amount they bring in now],” Sanders said.

City recorder Randy Sanders showing a map of the first due area. Also pictured is city attorney Tom O’Neill.

Thomas said he’d only be willing to use sales tax to pay for the new hires as a “bridge” to identifying another, more reliable funding source.

“I would only do it if it’s on a timeline,” Thomas said. “I think it’s untenable, from my standpoint, that the people living in the first due are getting a great deal compared to the people in the city,” he said. “I don’t think that’s right.”

Rylands said Kimble had identified an immediate need.

“I’m all for meeting that need, but I want a solution,” he said. “Kicking the can down road and taking the path of least resistance is not the answer. It’s not a solution. We’re going to be right back here in a year talking about this again. Nobody does anything until they have to.”

Councilman CJ Rylands, at left, and councilman Dave Thomas say they’re in favor of the first due fire fee.

Mayor opposes first due fee

Skinner said it would only take 14.89 percent of the city’s current sales tax collections to fully pay for the $200,000 needed to hire the three firefighters.

Regarding other council members’ comments, Skinner, who supports hiring the additional staff members, spoke adamantly against the first due fee.

“If this is the will of the council, you don’t have my support,” he said. “I don’t support the first due, I don’t agree with it, the numbers don’t add up, I think it’s going to hurt the county, and I don’t agree with it. I’m not supporting it.”

Mayor Robbie Skinner explaining the population spread in Upshur County.

In addition, Tammy Reger, director of the Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce, came to Wednesday’s meeting to ask council not to impose a square footage based first due fee on businesses following a year of a pandemic.

“I understand that Randolph County may be following that, but I’m not sure that that’s what we want to do,” she said. “We’re Buckhannon, not Randolph County, and we have a full business community here. In 2018, we were told there two plans: a fire fee along with some other fees or the 1 percent sales tax. Every single time, we can’t come back to these businesses and hit them; we just can’t. We just had a year of a pandemic. We may turn out to look like some other communities in this state, and I don’t think any of us want that.”

Kimble said he had just shown Elkins’ square footage model as one example of how first due fees are calculated and didn’t think that method was appropriate either.

A countywide conundrum

Kimble said that in a recent six-month period, 26 calls in one fire district in the county went entirely unanswered by the responsible fire department, and that just last week, the BFD responded to four unanswered calls in different districts.

“It’s a county issue – it’s countywide,” he said. “We are in a volunteer crisis.”

But for the BFD and its volunteers to continue responding to structure fires with staffing levels as they are is not sustainable, he stressed.

“Right now, we have two people (two paid staff work per shift) by themselves trying to fight a fire, volunteerism is down, and career staff has to compensate for that,” the fire chief said. “When we get mutual aid calls, a lot of times, you get as many people as you get apparatuses, and that’s not acceptable. We can’t continue to do that. We’re going to hurt or kill people or kill ourselves trying to attempt to provide a service with very little staffing.”

Whatever mechanism is used to pay the salaries and other costs associated with the new hires, city officials have estimated that adding them will cost about $200,000, bringing the fire department’s budget up from last year’s roughly $793,000 to about $1 million.

The Upshur County Fire Board is set to meet Tuesday to discuss potentially raising county fire fees.

Due to medical issues and other commitments, councilwoman Pam Bucklew, councilwoman Mary Albaugh and councilman Jack Reger were not able to participate in Wednesday’s meeting.

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