By Tina Alvey
Greenbrier voters will be asked in March to approve an excess levy to support the county’s 15 certified fire departments.
The County Commission unanimously voted Monday to issue an order to stage a special election for a $2 million levy which will provide funding for fire protection services, equipment and training. In order to pass, the levy must receive approval on at least 60 percent of the ballots cast.
The Commission’s order also calls for the hiring of a fire coordinator, whose duties will include reviewing and determining appropriate expenditures for each of the county’s fire departments and assisting in county-wide purchasing and planning.
The fire coordinator’s office will also be funded with revenue raised by the excess levy, the Commission’s order provides.
Speaking on behalf of the county’s fire departments, all of which have already endorsed the levy, Rainelle Fire Chief Shawn Wolford explained that two years ago the departments cooperatively formed a committee to look at funding sources. He said existing sources — such as mass mailings and boot drives to solicit financial support from the area’s residents — and potential new funding streams were examined.
A survey of all 15 fire departments found that mass solicitations brought in donations from no more than 50 percent of the residents contacted, leaving volunteer fire companies struggling to meet their obligations.
Wolford said insurance premium increases continue to be a major issue for the fire departments, some of which are facing hikes of between 800 and 900 percent in workers compensation coverage costs.
The joint committee also investigated the funding strategies employed by other counties, finding an example of a successful fire levy in Fayette County, as well as a newly-adopted measure in Raleigh County and serious consideration of a similar levy now under way in Kanawha County.
“We feel that a fire levy would be the most equitable, the most fair,” Wolford said.
The proposed levy order Wolford presented to the three commissioners, who then adopted it without amendment, provides that 80 percent of the revenue raised by the excess levy will be allotted among the county’s certified fire departments according to property values in each fire district. The remaining 20 percent of the money raised will fund the fire coordinator’s office and pay for county-level purchases and projects.
If approved by voters, this initial fire levy will be in force for five years, beginning with the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2013.
The first year’s projected revenue figures and distribution to fire companies are:
— Alderson VFD — $86,181
— Anthony Creek VFD — $96,028
— Clintonville VFD — $93,543
— Fairlea VFD — $116,095
— Frankford VFD —$110,950
— Lewisburg VFD — $250,000
— Quinwood VFD — $90,697
— Rainelle VFD — $109,561
— Renick VFD — $96,099
— Ronceverte VFD — $115,242
— Rupert VFD — $108,355
— Smoot VFD — $98,000
— Tri-County VFD — $86,181
— White Sulphur Springs VFD — $250,000
— Williamsburg VFD — $93,069
In addition to agreeing to the distribution ratio, the county’s fire departments also agreed to discontinue such fundraising measures as boot drives, fire fees and mailers, if the levy gains voter approval.
“This (levy) would take the place of countless hours spent on fundraising by fire departments,” Wolford said, noting the firefighters would, therefore, have more time for training, which is particularly important as the state raises the training requirements.
Wolford said volunteer firefighters are now required to undergo 120 hours of training to obtain state certification. He compared that figure to the mandatory 80 hours of training necessary for an entry-level coal mining job.
If the levy passes, Wolford said, “Every single fire department in the county would greatly benefit.”
The cost to the average homeowner for this excess levy would be around $50 per year, Wolford said. He cautioned that final figures are still being hashed out, and that the levy’s impact on individual property tax bills would depend upon the real estate’s assessed value.
As a good-faith gesture, all 15 VFDs will forego the $1,600 per department allocation they would otherwise have received from the county this year. That money will help defray the cost of the special election for the fire levy, tentatively set for March 2.
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