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Berkeley fire board asks for fee increase

January 20, 2000|By BRENDAN KIRBY

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The Berkeley County Fire Service Board on Thursday urged the County Commission to raise the county's fire service fees, which have not been adjusted since they took effect in 1986.

The fire board, which administers the annual fee, passed a resolution last week urging the County Commission to take "immediate action" to increase the fee.

Robert Frankenberry, vice chairman of the fire board, told the commissioners Thursday that the rate of inflation has climbed 52 percent since 1986, and the cost of utilities, fuel, repairs and fire equipment has increased substantially.

"We've talked about it for years and years and years, and nothing had ever been done," he said. "We're still trying to operate on a 1986 fire fee. We just can't continue."

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The proposal comes on the heels of the Berkeley County Fire and Rescue Association's request earlier this month for $50,000 to help fund new trucks and other equipment for the county's five volunteer fire companies.

Under the current fire fee, homeowners with 2,500 square feet and less pay $20 a year; residents with greater square footage pay $25. Businesses pay $50, $100, $250 or $500 a year, depending on their size.

The proposal to hike the fees drew a lukewarm response from Commission President D. Wayne Dunham and Commissioner Robert L. Burkhart. Commissioner John E. Wright was absent.

"Your 52 percent doesn't hold water," said Burkhart, who sits on the fire board.

Burkhart noted that the fire board's budget has more than doubled since 1988, from $253,250 to $620,000. "We have more than 52 percent more revenue," he said.

But Frankenberry said much of that increase has come from additional homes and businesses that have sprung up in the county over the past decade. Those new buildings increase strain on the fire companies, Frankenberry said.

Dunham said he thinks the issue should wait until all three commissioners have a chance to provide input.

"I want to have more information on it," he said in an interview after Thursday's meeting. "There's a lot of questions that have to be answered."

During the meeting, Burkhart said the commissioners and fire officials must determine needs.

"For us to look at it, we need to have a budget and adjust the rate to the budget, not (set) a rate and adjust the budget," he said.

Before increasing fire fees, the County Commission would have to schedule a public hearing. Due to the complexity of the process, Frankenberry said it probably will not happen until next year. Citing the need for new equipment, he said the need grows each year.

Robert W. Robinson, president of the Berkeley County Fire and Rescue Association, said no fire company in the county has a ladder truck. They must borrow a ladder truck from the Martinsburg Fire Department or an outside department.

He estimated that his company, the Bedington Volunteer Fire Department, responds to more than twice as many fire calls as it did a decade ago.

Robinson said the association will likely prepare a specific proposal on fee adjustments by this spring. He said he favors leaving the residential rates intact and increasing only commercial fire fees.

Large companies such as General Motors and Quad Graphics now pay only $500 a year, he said.

"We're not generating enough money to buy the equipment to support the big industries," he said.

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