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Fire group to seek OK for new tax

August 29, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

The Washington County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association plans to ask the County Commissioners and the state to approve an emergency services tax, a move its president says would lessen the dependency on fund-raisers as a way of raising revenue.

Fire and Rescue Association President Jason Baer said Thursday that fire and ambulance companies often find it difficult to keep up financially because of sometimes low public participation in fund-raisers.

"One-third of people respond to our calls for help," Baer said. "Yet, we respond to their calls for help regardless of who it is."

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Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said at a meeting this week that the Fire and Rescue Association will make the request to the commissioners in mid-September.

Baer said the Fire and Rescue Association wants to work with elected county and state officials to determine a possible tax rate and the best way a tax could be levied, whether it be on real property or gasoline or something else.

"It could be a tax on anything," he said. "Anything that would fund emergency services - that's what we're looking at."

Snook said Thursday an emergency services tax might not have the support of elected officials.

"It's probably going to be a little difficult for them to get that through no matter how it's structured," Snook said. "The commissioners will have to have more authority over the different companies because of more tax dollars (involved)."

While instituting some type of emergency services tax has been discussed for years, Baer said this would be the first time an official request has been made.

The commissioners would need state approval to put an emergency services tax in place. Snook said he did not think the state had given the county the authority to levy an emergency services tax.

Berkeley County, W.Va., charges an annual fire service fee based on square footage. Residents with properties up to 2,500 square feet pay $25, while the fee is $32 for properties larger than that, according to Berkeley County's fire service fee ordinance.

In Berkeley County, the fee for commercial properties up to 2,500 square feet is $64, and $130 for properties that are between 2,501 and 7,500 square feet, $320 for commercial properties that are between 7,501 and 20,000 square feet and $650 for properties that are 20,001 square feet and larger, according to the ordinance.

The Fire and Rescue Association, which is made up of 27 fire and ambulance companies, receives money from the commissioners and gets half of all gaming proceeds collected, among other sources.

The association's budget is about $3.1 million, including a $1.3 million allocation for the current fiscal year by the commissioners, according to the county budget.

The association received about $1.3 million in gaming proceeds this year.

The $1.3 million county contribution is from the general fund budget and includes money for building and vehicle insurance, utilities costs for the different companies, liability and training, Snook said.

In the current fiscal year, the county paid 75 percent of the companies' utility costs, up from 50 percent last year and 25 percent the year before, he said.

Baer said an emergency services tax would help ensure fire and ambulance services are keeping up with the county's growth rate and allow different companies to purchase equipment when they need it.

"We got to have a plan in place ... or one of these days we're going to be caught with our pants down," Baer said.

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