Berkeley County Fire Service Board pushing for higher annual fire fee

Recently completed strategic plan identifies a need to replace $4 million in equipment by 2016

December 16, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |
  • Rhoe

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The Berkeley County Fire Service Board is pushing for a possible increase in the annual fire fee it charges residents and businesses to help purchase millions of dollars in needed equipment in the years to come.

A recently completed strategic plan identifies a need to replace $4 million in equipment by 2016 and slightly more than $10 million in equipment over the next 14 years, based on national standards, Fire Service Board Greg Rhoe told the Berkeley County Council Thursday.

The analysis found that the main stations for South Berkeley and Bedington volunteer fire departments, which handle a substantial number of the total calls, either need to be replaced or undergo major renovations, Rhoe said.

South Berkeley's station along U.S. 11 just south of W.Va. 51 in Inwood, W.Va., was built in 1957, and the Bedington Volunteer Fire Department's station, along Bedington Road north of Martinsburg, was built in 1966, according to Rhoe.

He also noted that South Berkeley's station ceiling and door heights would not accommodate a ladder truck, if the department ever has the money to make such a purchase.

Rhoe, who acknowledged that a more in-depth study of the capital improvements needs to be done, did not propose a specific fire fee rate hike.

But he asked the council, which must ultimately approve any such increase, to consider raising the rate residential and commercial property owners pay, and to also address inequities between what the owners of small and large commercial facilities pay.

The strategic plan cites the Macy's 1.3-million-square-foot distribution center as an example of the inequity between small and large facilities.

The new distribution center is projected to generate $975 for the fire service board, but any commercial structure larger than 20,001 square feet also is charged $975, under the county's fire fee ordinance.

Residential fire fees are $30 or $40, depending on square footage.

The fire service board's budget is expected to increase to $2.5 million by 2016, up from $1.35 million this year, and Rhoe said he doesn't expect grants, while are helpful, to solve the funding need.

The current fees have been in place since 2005, but Rhoe said the board recognizes the fragile economic environment and the political implications of increasing the fee in an election year.

"We've gotten where we are because we've been kicking this can down the road for the last, at least 10 years, maybe longer," Rhoe said.

"I don't think regardless ... how slow our economy may be, I don't think we do the citizens of Berkeley County a huge favor by deferring this and kicking the can further down the road," Rhoe said.

Aside from equipment, Rhoe also cited the need for administrative improvements and volunteers, the latter being a problem in many communities.

Council members Thursday did not tell Rhoe to shelve the rate increase proposal, but they did not say whether they would support it, either.

The fee increase, if the council approves it, would go into effect for the fire service board's next billing cycle in July 2012, Rhoe said.

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