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More than 40 Berkeley County property owners to be exempt from fire fee increases

Council approves fee hikes, effective July 1, by 4-1 vote

April 12, 2012|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthew.umstead@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG. W.Va. — More than 40 Berkeley County property owners will be exempt from paying fire fee increases adopted Thursday by a 4-1 vote of the Berkeley County Council.

Council member Elaine Mauck voted against the fee increases for residential and commercial structures, which are now set to take effect July 1.

As adopted, 47 “non-residential building” account holders will continue to be charged $975 per year because their structures range between 20,001 and 35,000 square feet.

Under the current ordinance, which was adopted in 2005, owners of all commercial structures larger than 20,000 square feet are billed $975 annually.

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In a bid to address criticism of the current commercial fee structure, the Berkeley County Fire Service Board proposed owners of nonresidential structures between 20,001 and 50,000 square feet pay $1,250, and proposed higher fees for even larger buildings.

Nonresidential buildings are defined as those used for commercial, institutional, industrial, governmental, nonprofit or multifamily purposes, according to the county’s amended fire service fee ordinance.

Councilman Douglas E. Copenhaver Jr., who proposed the addition of the 20,001-35,000 square foot tier in the amended fee structure, said the change would be “more fair” to those property owners.

After Thursday’s vote, he and other council members said they do not own any structures that fall within the square footage tier that will not see a fire fee hike.

Fire service board Chairman Greg Rhoe said the additional $975 fee tier that Copenhaver proposed attempts to “bridge the gap” between fees for 20,000- and 50,000-square-foot buildings. Property owners with a 7,501- to 20,000-square-foot building will pay $500 annually under the new fire fee structure.

Rhoe told council members that he was sure the fire board could “survive” the reduction in revenue as a result of the additional tier.

Meanwhile, every other property owner will see a fee increase, according to the revised ordinance.

Homeowners will 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.

To offset the fee break added for the 47 account holders, the  council also agreed Thursday to increase the square-footage charge billed to owners of structures that exceed 100,000 square feet from .0025 cents, as proposed by the fire board, to .0030 cents. That rate is in addition to $2,200 annual fee they will be charged.

With the amended fee increases, Rhoe calculated the board would collect about $450,000 more per year, increasing the total fire fee projected revenue to about $1.7 million.

The increases originally proposed by the fire board were expected to generate about $10,000 more in funding.

Regardless, the additional revenue is expected to 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.

Aside from the adjustments to the fee structure, the county council also agreed to revise the ordinance to clarify that the exemption for churches, schools and other nonprofit organizations would remain in effect “no later than” July 1, 2014, but did not act on Mauck’s proposal to change the deadline to July 1, 2013.

With the exemption still in effect and that money being “left on the table,” Mauck said she couldn’t support asking the residents to pay more.

“We will try to implement this as soon as possible,” Rhoe said of removing the exemption.

Additional resources not previously tapped will be needed to verify information about the now exempt property owners in order to remove it, according to Rhoe.

He also noted that the amended fire fee ordinance provides for removal of the exemption, but the current ordinance does not.

Rhoe said the exemption for agricultural buildings in the current ordinance will remain in effect with the revised ordinance, crediting feedback received at the public hearing for spotlighting the need to clarify the document.

Even with the council’s action, residents can still 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 65,135 registered voters within a 45-day period after the fee increases are advertised, Bentley said.

Properties exempt from fire fee increase

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