Director of Banks District EMS John Roby told the Fire Board he believed the true problem in the volunteer departments is a lack of people, not funds. / Photos by Monica Zalaznik

Upshur Fire Board tables decision about whether fire fee may be used to cover manpower costs within volunteer fire departments

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Fire Board tabled a vote on whether the county fire fee – which may be raised in the near future – could be used to cover the cost of manpower-related expenses.

Several guests attended the Tuesday, July 18 meeting of the county Fire Board to discuss adding manpower to the list of items the fire fee is allowed to pay for at volunteer fire departments.

The topic was initially brought up during the June 28 Upshur County Firefighters Association meeting, where members were informed the Fire Board had approved their request to begin the process of increasing the county fire fee.

Director of Banks District EMS John Roby told the Fire Board he believed the true problem in the volunteer departments is a lack of people, not funds.

“I’ve told everybody that the problem is people — that’s why I’m here tonight,” Roby said. “We should add manpower [to the permitted uses of the fire fee], so we have the option to pay people with money from the fee. Don’t tie our hands; let each department make that decision for themselves.”

The Upshur County Firefighters 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.

Buckhannon Fire Department Captain Joey Baxa agreed with raising the fire fee, but said he thinks systems would need to be put in place before the fire fee is allowed to pay for manpower in any capacity.

“I agree with John that no department should be handicapped if they want to use this money to fund manpower as long as their primary role is to respond on a fire apparatus because that is what the fire fee money should be used for — as fire suppression,” Baxa said. “I don’t know why we would exclude that possibility, but there would have to be checks and balances just to make sure that people are using the money appropriately.”

Buckhannon Fire Department Captain Joey Baxa at Tuesday’s Upshur Fire Board meeting.

Baxa also wants some of the money designated for recruitment and retention to help remedy the ongoing staffing shortages.

“The fee needs to be raised; costs have gone up, and nobody is going to say the fee doesn’t need to be raised, but I think there’s two other problems that need to be solved,” Baxa said. “There needs to be so much of the money that’s earmarked for recruitment, retention, whether that means paying for firefighter classes or whatever that you can submit for reimbursement that comes out of that money,” Baxa said. “[That could be used] to help fund some of the things that Kristie (Kristie Tenney, Upshur County Commission president) has worked on — pamphlets, the handout, things like that.”

“I think this will be an excellent time to set up a small percentage of that money to help with those sorts of things,” he added.

Baxa said he would also like to see the results from the study of the delivery of emergency services across Upshur County conducted by Jeff Harvey, owner of JH Consulting, LLC, a firm that assists with emergency preparedness and safety planning. He said the study could offer more data that could bolster certain arguments for how the money should be utilized.

“I’m in support of this, but I’m very hesitant to be vocal about it until the Jeff Harvey study comes out,” he said.

Upshur County Commission President Kristie Tenney said the study is completed, and a presentation should be given soon.

“I’ve met with Jeff, and he has everything ready to present to the county and the city at this time; he was waiting until after July because of the events that were happening in the city to give the presentation,” Tenney said. “He wanted to have a joint meeting with the city, the county and the first responders in a public setting.”

Upshur Fire Board Chairperson Joe Gower said the study was a topic better suited for consideration at the Fire Board’s next meeting.  

“We need to keep pursuing the available options; we obviously can’t make any decisions tonight,” Gower said. “If anybody can dig up additional information, what other departments are doing, what other counties are doing, that would be great.”

The board tabled the decision about allowable uses for the fire fee, but the issue will be again during their next meeting at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 15 at the Upshur County Commission Administrative Annex at 91 W. Main Street. The next Upshur County Firefighters Association meeting is set for 7 p.m. July 26 at the Adrian Volunteer Fire Department.

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