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W.Va. fire company sounds fund-raising alarm

May 27, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - With its annual fund drive bringing in less than half of what it usually generates, the Independent Fire Co. in Ranson is making a plea to the community for help.

Late last month, the department took out a half-page ad in a local newspaper outlining the financial challenges facing the department and asking the community for financial assistance.

"It's the first time we have ever had to do that," said Independent Chief Ed Smith.

In fiscal year 1999, operating expenses for the department were $375,728, and this year they may exceed $450,000, the ad stated.

Government sources of funding represent about 12 percent of the department's needs, meaning it has to depend on fund-raising projects such as bingo and its annual fund drive to generate the rest.

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Each year, the department sends mailings to 12,000 people in its service area asking for financial assistance, said Don Clendening, president of Independent. On average, about 8 percent of the mailings are returned with donations, but this year the rate has been less than 5 percent, Clendening said.

The campaign usually raises about $50,000, but has brought in less than half that so far, he said.

Smith said he believes the primary reason for the decline in donations is a large, organized fund-raising campaign being conducted by the Citizens Fire Co. in nearby Charles Town. Over the last year, Citizens has held pancake dinners, breakfasts, a hog feed and a raffle for a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to raise funds.

The money is being saved for a new $3 million fire station the company wants to build off the Charles Town bypass.

"They have been getting a lot of press and PR. We support what they are doing, but it has had a much greater impact than we expected," Smith said.

Citizens Fire Co. has been affected by a shortage in funds as well.

The fire company had hoped to generate $1.2 million by now, but has only $400,000. Because of the shortfall, the department will have to build its new fire station in phases, said Chief Jay Cepelka.

Cepelka said the problem in finding enough money to run the local volunteer fire departments may rest with the changing face of the county's population.

In past decades, county residents were used to donating money regularly to the county's five fire departments, but new people moving into the county may not be as responsive to pleas for help, Cepelka said. He fears newcomers have the mistaken belief that local taxes support the volunteer fire departments.

The fire departments see other challenges down the road.

Smith, Clendening and Cepelka agree that the county may have to consider going to paid fire departments to meet the needs of the growing population.

"I told them five years ago that's something they better start looking at," said Cepelka, referring to a conversation he had with the Jefferson County Commissioners.

Commissioner James K. Ruland declined to comment on the possibility of paid fire service in the county, but he said it's a trend across the country. Not only do fire departments have to spend many hours raising money to fund their operations, they are constantly being required to have new training and new equipment, which strains on their budgets, Ruland said.

Smith agreed, saying his department is constantly required by the National Fire Protection Agency to upgrade equipment. Independent bought a new engine last year that cost $327,000.

"All this adds up to more and more dollar signs," Ruland said.

Commission President James G. Knode said he has been told paid fire service in the county will cost in excess of $2 million. There is no way the current tax structure can support that, he said.

Fire fees?

The county has the capability to enact fire fees, but collection of those fees has been difficult in some communities that use them, Knode said.

That has not been the case in Berkeley County, which charges a $25 fire fee, said Dee Young, chief of the Hedgesville Volunteer Fire Department. The collection rate for the fee averages better than 90 percent, he said.

The fee generates about $580,000 a year and greatly helps the county's five volunteer fire departments pay for operation costs, Young said.

As a result, there has never been talk of paid fire service in Berkeley County, Young said.

"We're not ready to shut the doors on volunteers," Young said.

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