ELKINS - The Randolph County Fire Protection Association is working to establish a county-wide fire fee to help nine volunteer fire departments extinguish the rising costs of operations.
Volunteer firefighters are currently circulating petitions to obtain signatures to begin the process of implementing the fee. The proposed fee will be a monthly charge of $5 to $6 for each residence and a pro-rated annual fee for businesses, according to a press release from the association.
The business fee would range from $100 a year for structures up to 2,000 square feet and $500 for businesses larger than 10,000 square feet.
"We understand that people's budgets are tight, and we want to be sensitive to that," Charles Moats, a member of the Leading Creek Volunteer Fire Department and president of the Randolph County Fire Protection Association, said in the press release. "We have worked to keep this fee as reasonable as possible while still providing the financial assistance our departments badly need."
Before the fee can be implemented the association must obtain signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in the county, excluding the registered voters within the Elkins Fire Department's first due response area.
The fee would not apply to those residents because the city of Elkins has already passed an ordinance that collects fees from that area.
The new fire fee would be implemented for areas served by the volunteer fire departments in Beverly, Coalton, Harman, Huttonsville/Mill Creek, Leading Creek, Pickens, Tygarts Valley, Valley Head and Whitmer.
"The association has been talking and discussing a proposed fire fee for about six months," Randolph County Commissioner Mike Taylor told The Inter-Mountain Tuesday. "They have to get signatures of 10 percent of the registered voters in the affected area."
He said that once the signatures are collected, the association will then have to present it to the County Commission. He said the petition will have to be certified by the county clerk to ensure the signatures requirement is met. Once the petition is presented to the County Commission, anyone that opposes the proposed fire fee can also present a petition.
"They (any opposition) will have to present a petition with 30 percent of registered voters," Taylor said. "If that happens it would then go for a public vote during the next election. If a 30 percent petition is not presented, the County Commission can implement the fee."
Taylor said the proposal is the brainchild of the Fire Protection Association and nothing has yet been presented to the County Commission.
Jeff Pritt, a member of both the association and the Beverly Volunteer Fire Department, said any money collected by the fee would be divided 11 ways. He said it would be split evenly among the nine departments, plus a "rainy day" fund and administrative fees. Pritt explained that the "rainy day" monies would be saved in case a particular department ran into any funding issues or needed to replace an expensive piece of equipment.
"Each department has been soliciting signatures," Pritt said. "We will present the petition to the County Commission when we get to 10 percent of the registered voters."
Pritt noted state code dictates the signatures can't come from the Elkins Fire Department's first due response area, as a fire service fee has already been applied to that area by Elkins City Council.
The city of Elkins passed that ordinance on its third and final reading June 12. The Elkins fire fee ordinance will charge a flat rate of $100 per owner-occupied home and all other structures consisting of two or fewer living units. Any commercial or industrial structures or rental structures with three or more units will pay five cents per square foot. The ordinance will not go into effect until July 1, 2015.
"As operational costs go up, it is getting harder for the departments to provide the services we expect in Randolph County," Taylor said. "They do a tremendous job for the residents, but the operational costs are getting to be too much."
Taylor said the County Commission currently funds each department in the county, including the Elkins Fire Department, at $17,000 a year.
Moats said the fire fee is necessary for several main reasons. Costs continue to increase, from operational items such as utilities and fuel to bunker gear and replacement equipment. The number of volunteers has also decreased due to expensive and time-consuming training, he said.
During the past decade, the departments' memberships have dropped by about a third, while call volumes have increased by about the same amount, according to the press release.
He also noted that it is harder for the departments to conduct fundraisers with time constraints on firefighters and auxiliary members.
"The cost to outfit a firefighter is more than $8,000," Moats said, noting that includes bunker gear, air masks and tanks, pagers and training classes. "Turnout gear should be replaced every 10 years and the average department has 30 sets, which means we should replace about three sets a year for a cost of $10,000."
None of those costs address equipment such as hoses, extraction tools, heat sensors or other necessary items.
Moats said a fee placed on insurance policies generates roughly $42,000 per department, but that amount barely covers annual workers' compensation costs and insurance on vehicles and buildings.
"It doesn't touch operational expenses or any capital expenditures such as a new truck," he said.
The average cost of a new tanker or pumper is $300,000, and most Randolph County departments haven't purchased one in 10 years.
"Randolph County includes more than 1,000 square miles, the majority of that covered by volunteer firefighters," Moats said. "Our geography creates unique challenges, and we want to maintain our current response times. Those times also are a critical factor in determining fire ratings that affect people's insurance costs."
If the petition garners enough signatures and is approved by the County Commission, the Fire Protection Association is anticipating the fee would go into effect in 2015.
People interested in signing the petition or volunteering should contact their local fire department, officials said.