Berkeley County Council member speaks out on fire fees

December 23, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Berkeley County's fire service fee should be more reflective of the City of Martinsburg's fee structure and should not exempt churches and nonprofits from helping support fire suppression services in the county, Berkeley County Council member Elaine Mauck said Thursday.

The exemption is one of several changes that Mauck said need to be at least considered before residents are asked to pay more.

"The residents are getting killed," said Mauck, who noted there are about 70 churches in the county.

The Berkeley County Fire Service Board informed County Council members earlier this month that it would like an increase in the annual fire fee 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.

Depending on square footage, county residential property owners currently pay a $30 or $40 annual fire fee, according to the county's fire service fee ordinance.

Commercial property owners pay between $80 and $975, depending on square footage. Airport hangars pay $500.

The fee for any commercial building larger than 20,001 square feet pays a maximum of $975, which Mauck said is "just not fair," considering small businesses are paying as much as large industries like Macy's.

County Council would have to approve any fee changes proposed by the Berkeley County Fire Service Board, which is expected to present a proposal for consideration.

"The Fire Board under the direction of Greg Rhoe has been very deliberate, very thoughtful in every step of the process ... and I don't want to pre-judge what they're going (to propose)," County Council President William L. "Bill" Stubblefield said when asked about proposed changes to the fire fee ordinance.

City Finance Director Mark Spickler confirmed Friday that the city's fire fee for commercial property owners, including churches and nonprofit organizations, is 7.5 cents per square foot if the building is larger than 1,200 square feet. Smaller commercial property owners pay a minimum of $90 per year.  

Spickler said the city eliminated a fee structure similar to the county's existing fee schedule several years ago. The city collects nearly $1 million annually in fire fees, which unlike the county fire fee, also support the city's EMS operation.

Aside from federal government property, Spickler said the only property that is currently exempt from the city's fire fee is the county school district and "it's debatable (whether) we should start charging them" given services the city receives from the school district.

The school district allows its buildings to be used for voting locations in elections, and training for at least some fire, EMS and law enforcement personnel is provided through the Regional Education Service Agency 8 and James Rumsey Technical Institute.

Superintendent Manny P. Arvon II said Friday there haven't been any disagreements on the fire fee issue and said the school district will continue do everything possible to keep its "great" relationship with the city and county.

Stubblefield said the county lacks square footage data for churches and nonprofit groups and would need to compile the data if the county were to start billing them.

"There's some very large churches and there's some very small churches — we're not in a position now to differentiate ... because of the lack of information," Stubblefield said.

Because churches and nonprofits are not assessed for property taxes, Stubblefield said obtaining the square footage information for the structures they own had been a "low priority" in years past for the county Assessor's office.

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