President of the Upshur County Firefighters Association Tyvonne Gibson displays the petition to increase the annual county fire fee. / Photo by Monica Zalaznik

Firefighters Association to circulate petition to raise county fire fee for the first time in 22 years

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Firefighters Association has begun the process of potentially increasing the fire fee for the first time in 22 years.

The Upshur County Firefighters Association met on June 28 after unanimously voting to increase the fire fee during their April 19 meeting.

“The fire fee has never been raised in 22 years; we never solicited for petitions to get the fire fee raised,” president of the Upshur County Firefighters Association Tyvonne Gibson said. “I think it’s time to look at this and start considering raising the fee and trying to get these petitions out there. We do have the petitions ready to go.”

The Upshur County fire fee was established in 2001 and has not been raised since its inception. The current fee for an individual residence is $25 annually and would change to $50, and the current fee for a commercial property is $50 annually and would change to $100. In addition, the current annual fee for five or more acres of vacant land is $5, and the increase would change that to $10.

The Firefighters Association members concluded the fee must be increased to accommodate for rising costs.

The association provided a complete list of expenses the fire fee covers, including firefighting equipment, fire truck payments, outfitting firefighters, training, equipment testing, gasoline/diesel for fire fighting vehicles, electricity, heating fuel, telephone/internet, water, garbage, cleaning supplies, general office supplies/equipment, insurance for building/vehicles, auto maintenance/repairs/parts, building maintenance/repairs, pest control, secretarial work, audit fees and bank statement fees.

“Just look at the cost of fuel; gas was $1.46 per gallon in 2001, and now it’s, on average, $3.49 per gallon today,” Gibson said. “A stamp was 34 cents in 2001, and now it costs 63 cents. Everything is more expensive.”

Gibson also cited how expensive personal protective equipment is, averaging approximately $13,480 annually, which does not include additional tools and must be replaced every 10 years.

To raise the fire fee, the association must acquire signatures from residents registered to vote in the county in favor of raising the fee.

“We will only be petitioning county residents, so that brings your number down to 1,144 signatures you’ll need,” Upshur County Fire Fee Clerk Toni Newman said. “You’re probably going to want to get more than that to cover any invalid signatures.”

The West Virginia State Code Chapter 7, Article 17, Section 12 states that a petition to increase the fire fee must be signed by 10 percent of the qualified voters in the county. The voters must be registered to vote in Upshur County, and people registered to vote in the City of Buckhannon are not eligible to sign the petition.

Buckhannon Fire Chief J.B. Kimble said once the association obtains these signatures, any parties with a petition opposing the fire fee increase must collect the signatures of 30 percent of the qualified voters in the county.

“The opposition has 45 days to get 30 percent of qualified voters in the county,” Kimble said. “If the opposition obtains enough signatures, that pushes it to a vote [as to whether] the fire fee will be increased or not. Last time this process happened, the opposition had 28 percent, so it just went through.”

Upshur County Administrator Tabatha Perry said she could not find a specific deadline for when the association must have their signatures.

The petition handed out at the meeting was already approved by the Upshur County Fire Board and once signatures are collected, the fire board will present a resolution to the Upshur County Commission to raise the fee.

Newman said signatures on the petitions must be collected carefully. Eligible voters in favor of the petition must sign the petition as well as print their name, birth date and street address.

“The printing of the signature, birthday and address must be legible, or it will be [considered] an invalid signature, so make sure if you have someone who doesn’t write legibly, you write and let them sign,” Newman said. “The County Clerks must be able to read the birthday and the street address because they’re going to go through the books and check them off. Last time, each page was 75 percent valid and 25 percent invalid.”

John Roby, the director of Banks District EMS, said he also wanted to add ‘manpower’ to the list of things the fire fee can pay for.

“I know a lot of us are not for this, but one word needs to be added, and that’s manpower, so we have the option to pay people with money from the fee,” Roby said. “If you don’t agree with that and you want to use the money on a truck or whatever, that’s fine, but the rest of us need manpower, so don’t limit us. Please go to the next Fire Board meeting and support us on that.”

Gibson said members of the association in favor of adding manpower to the list of expenses covered by the fire fee would need to go to the next Fire Board meeting to add that wording.

Newman said the next Fire Board meeting is July 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Upshur County Commission Administrative Annex, located at 91 W. Main St., Suite 101.

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