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Some Berkeley County residents speak against fire fee hike

They say no property owners should be exempt from paying and that more accountability is needed

April 05, 2012|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthew.umstead@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The few people who spoke against a proposed increase to the Berkeley County fire fee at a public hearing Thursday night asked for more fiscal accountability and that property owners who are now exempt to pay their fair share.

If adopted by the Berkeley County Council and put into effect July 1, homeowners would pay a fire fee of $35, $50 or $65 per year, depending on the square footage of their house. Residents now pay $30 or $40 in a two-tier fee structure.

Nonresidential property owners would pay between $95 and $2,200 per year, also depending on square footage.

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.

All owners of commercial structures larger than 20,000 square feet currently pay $975 per year.

After the hearing, which attracted about 40 people, council President William L. “Bill” Stubblefield said he expected the council to vote on the proposed fee increase on April 12.

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Del. Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, said at Thursday’s hearing that the proposed revisions to the fee structure are more equitable to all who are billed currently, but questioned the increase at a time when many people are unemployed or have little income.

Without saying who is currently exempt from paying the fire fee, Kump said all property owners should pay “their fair share” before those who are billed now are asked to pay more.

The current fire fee ordinance exempts nonprofit organizations, including churches and schools, from paying a fire fee. The amended fire fee ordinance being considered continues the exemption for nonprofits at least until July 1, 2014.

Greg Rhoe, chairman of the Berkeley County Fire Service Board, said the county lacks information about the structures owned by nonprofits, and that it must be compiled to address the exemption.

The city of Martinsburg, which charges a fire fee separate from the county, does not exempt nonprofits, city and county officials have said.

The continued exemption was one of the reasons why county Councilwoman Elaine Mauck has said she opposes a fire fee increase. Her opposition to the increase was hailed Thursday night by Thomas Ressler of Falling Waters, W.Va.

“We need to go after these deadbeats that don’t pay,” Ressler said.

Rhoe later responded that the fire service board is doing everything possible to collect delinquent fees within the constraints of state law.

In response to questions of accountability, Rhoe said stewardship of the fire fee revenue ultimately lies with the county council, which appoints members to the fire service board.

Rhoe said the fire service board needs to do a better job with day-to-day business and has said a full-time administrator needs to be hired to facilitate grants, requests for proposals and to institute better business practices.

The proposed increases are expected to generate an additional $461,000 increase in funding for the fire service board . The additional revenue would help the board begin to implement a strategic plan to better support the county’s five volunteer fire companies, Rhoe has said.

A study completed last year determined that about $4 million in equipment needs to be replaced by 2016.

Major renovations are also needed at South Berkeley and Bedington volunteer fire departments’ main stations.

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