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Berkeley County to hold public hearing on fire fee ordinance

Residents would pay $5, $10 or $15 more a year if proposed increase takes effect

March 29, 2012|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthew.umstead@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The fire fee for most Berkeley County residents would increase by $5, $10 or $15 per year as part of a proposed increase that could take effect July 1.

The Berkeley County Council voted 4-1 Thursday to hold a public hearing on April 5 on proposed revisions to the county’s fire fee ordinance, which also would increase fees paid by nonresidential structure owners.

Councilwoman Elaine Mauck voted against the revisions, noting the bulk of the projected $461,000 increase in funding for the Berkeley County Fire Service Board would be generated by residential property owners.

The fee changes, if adopted, would not apply to residents in the city of Martinsburg, which collects its own fire fee.

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As proposed by the fire service board, owners of homes up to 1,600 square feet would pay $35, $5 more than what they are charged under the current fee structure, which has been in effect since 2005.

Owners of residential structures from 1,600 to 3,000 square feet would be charged $50 per year, and the fee for homes larger than 3,000 feet would be $65.

The fee increase would range between $10 and $25 more per year for the larger home categories. The fire fee currently is $30 per year for homes up to 2,500 square feet and $40 for larger homes.

Nonresidential property owners would pay between $95 and $2,200 per year depending on square footage size. An additional .0025 cents per square foot charge would be billed to owners of structures that exceed 100,000 square feet, according to the draft ordinance.

Structures used primarily for state government, educational, charitable or religious purposes would not be subject to the annual service fee until July 2014, under the proposal.

The additional revenue would help the fire service board begin to implement a strategic plan to better support the county’s five volunteer fire companies, board Chairman Greg Rhoe said.

A study completed last year determined that about $4 million in equipment needs to be replaced by 2016, and millions more are needed in the years to come, Rhoe said. The analysis also found that South Berkeley and Bedington volunteer fire departments’ main stations need to be replaced or undergo major renovations.

Rhoe said the fee increases for nonresidential structures were vetted with business leaders and also addressed existing unfairness in the current billing structure. All owners of commercial structures larger than 20,000 square feet currently pay $975 per year. 

Even if the county council adopted the fire fee revision, residents could petition to have the issue decided by a vote in the November general election, according to council attorney Norwood Bentley III.

Petitioners would need to collect the signatures of 30 percent of the county’s more than 60,000 eligible voters within a 45-day period, Bentley said.

Aside from the burden on residential property owners, Mauck also questioned the continued exemption for nonprofits and churches, arguing that it takes more equipment and resources to fight fires at larger commercial buildings. Martinsburg does not provide for such an exemption, Mauck noted.

“I’m representing the residents,” Mauck said.

Rhoe said he agreed with Mauck’s assessment that larger buildings would require more equipment to respond, but also noted that the structures have some of the best fire suppression systems in place to minimize the need for services. 

The revenue generated from a fire fee increase is separate from the county’s approval of funding for paid full-time firefighters, which are supporting the volunteer fire companies’ weekday response, County Council President William L. “Bill” Stubblefield said.

The county’s budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year includes funding to employ two additional paid full-time firefighters, which will bring the total number on staff to six.

Stubblefield said after the meeting that Berkeley County might very well be the only county in the state to employ full-time firefighters with money from the general fund.

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