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Residents may get say on fees

January 25, 2002

Residents may get say on fees



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer, Charles Town


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Berkeley County residents will likely get two chances to comment on a proposed county fire fee increase that has raised concerns from one member of the Berkeley County Commission.

The Berkeley County Commission and county fire officials on Thursday discussed having a public meeting on the increase next month and another in March.

No dates were established.

Commission President Howard Strauss, who has raised concerns about the increase, continued to question parts of the proposal.

Strauss said he is opposed to increasing the fire fee for homeowners, although he supports a proposed new $50 fee for anyone who owns a house that is 5,000 square feet in size or larger.

Under the proposal, homes up to 2,500 square feet would see an increase from $20 to $25 a year and homes from 2,500 square feet to 5,000 square feet would see an increase from $25 to $30 a year.

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Strauss said if the residential fire fee is increased, it would be added to several other recent tax and fee increases, and Strauss is concerned about how they will affect people on fixed incomes.

Strauss specifically pointed to the commission's decision last November to increase the county's ambulance fee from $25 to $35 and the passage of a $27.8 million school bond issue on Sept. 29.

For a house valued at $100,000, the bond issue will increase the homeowners annual tax bill by about $63 a year, school officials said.

Strauss said he also does not want to see the fire fee increased for small businesses.

Under the proposal, businesses up to 2,500 square feet would see a fee increase from $50 to $100 a year. It is one of four business classifications that would see a doubling of the fee.

Strauss said he wants to see the fee for businesses 2,500 square feet in size and smaller to remain at $50.

Commissioner Robert L. Burkhart said he does not believe the commissioners should comment on the proposed increase until after the public meetings.

Commissioner John Wright did not comment on the issue.

The commissioners and County Attorney Norwood Bentley discussed several legal issues involving the increase.

Bentley said if 30 percent of the county's registered voters oppose the hike and sign a petition, the commission either has to drop the proposal or place it on a ballot.

Officials with the county's five volunteer fire companies say the increase is needed to pay for new equipment.

Ed Calhoun, president of the Berkeley County Fire Board, the agency that collects the fire fee, appeared before the commission to stress the need for the increase.

Calhoun said the cost of firefighting equipment has increased significantly in the last six years. A firetruck costs around $300,000, an amount that would have paid for three trucks in 1996, Calhoun said.

New warning lights, sirens and other equipment is required on firetrucks, and the increased weight of the vehicles requires they be built on larger frames and have more braking and engine power, he said.

Since the fire fee was passed in 1986, there have been expenditures in excess of $1.5 million that have paid for equipment such as seven new fire trucks, Calhoun said.

Each of the county's fire stations is more than 27 years old and some have cracked floors, bad roofs and other structural problems, Calhoun said. Some will need to be either renovated or replaced in coming years, Calhoun said.

"These problems have to be dealt with to keep these buildings open," Calhoun told the commission.

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