By Mannix Porterfield
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An effort to extend a tax break to West Virginia’s volunteer firefighters to make them feel “loved and wanted” is the aim of a bill crafted by a Fayette County legislator, patterned after one proposed for school teachers.
Under the legislation, Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, would excuse firefighters from paying any additional taxes that are due beyond what is withheld from paychecks at their places of employment.
For the first three years, the exemption would apply to 100 percent of what additional taxes might accrue, then 50 percent for the next three years, she explained Tuesday.
Staggers, an emergency room physician, made a point of visiting firefighting units since she serves as medical director for all of them in Fayette and Wyoming counties, many in Raleigh and one in Boone County.
“All of the volunteer fire departments are telling me how hard it is to stay in business because they’re all volunteers,” Staggers said.
“Some of the bigger volunteer fire units like Oak Hill and Fayetteville have been able to pay for expenses like gas and education, but the smaller ones can’t pay it.”
To serve in such units, she noted, one must be designated a fireman one, meaning one must be adept at climbing ropes, executing rope rescues, carrying people down a ladder, wade through simulated, smoke-filled dark rooms and be able to strap on equipment that weighs 50 to 60 pounds while wearing a respirator.
“So this isn’t something minor,” she said. “They have to take all sorts of courses and continue to take them just to be an entry level fireman.
“These are our true heroes. These are the guys that if you or I wreck in the middle of a storm, and everybody else gets to stay in bed, they have to get up and put on their volunteer clothes and cut us out of the car and haul us off until we get to an ambulance.”
For most West Virginians, the only people available in times of crisis are volunteer firefighters, Staggers said.
“Beckley is lucky to have a paid force, but surrounding areas like Trap Hill and Ghent are all volunteers,” she said.
Staggers said firefighters wanted the Legislature to provide some token of appreciation, and she chose to seek a tax break.
“So I introduced a bill that mirrors the tax breaks for the teachers in under-served areas and teachers in under-served subjects,” the delegate said.
“It would encourage our volunteers, make them feel like they’re loved and wanted.”
Mannix Porterfield writes for The Register-Herald in Beckley, W.Va.