By Tina Alvey
Greenbrier County’s 15 volunteer fire departments have pinned many of their hopes on the outcome of the special election on March 2, when voters will decide the fate of an excess levy designed to provide a reliable source of funding for such items as fire equipment and training.
The biggest single expense the departments have, according to Shawn Wolford, chairman of the Greenbrier County Fire Levy Committee, is upkeep of trucks and other firefighting apparatus.
“There’s a recommended 20-year life span on pumper trucks,” Wolford said. “After 25 years, those trucks are supposed to be taken out of service.
“Ladder trucks should come out of service by the time they’re 25 or 30 years old; there’s a danger of metal fatigue in the ladders beyond that age.”
As chief of the Rainelle Volunteer Fire Department, Wolford said he realizes his unit is “not as poor as some other, smaller departments.” Even so, he said Rainelle’s main engine is now 26 years old, and the company’s ladder truck — one of only two in the entire 1,000-square-mile county — just marked its 37th year.
“Most of the county’s fire departments have trucks that are well beyond the age when they should be retired,” Wolford said.
Replacing those engines is a lot more expensive than replacing the family car or truck.
“Just for a standard, plain-Jane fire engine, without any extras, it’ll cost at least $250,000, and that doesn’t include any of the equipment you have to carry on it,” Wolford said. “We’ve been looking into a combo engine/pumper for Rainelle, and you can’t get one of those for less than $650,000.”
To put those numbers into perspective, Wolford said the Rainelle VFD last year received just over $80,000 in funding from all sources. The unit’s expenditures included $15,500 for workers’ compensation insurance, $15,000 for general insurance, a $32,000 capital payment for the department’s rescue truck and utility bills that totaled around $15,000, leaving less than $10,000 for training, equipment repair and replacement, and other operating expenses.
It simply wasn’t enough.
“We had to cash in two CDs last year — savings we had set aside to someday put toward building a new fire station — and use $10,000 of our savings just to pay our bills,” Wolford said.
“We might be able to go another two or three years, dipping into our reserves to meet our expenses, but that’s it,” he added.
As for the county’s smaller, rural fire departments, Wolford hesitated to make any dire predictions about their future if the levy fails to gain support from voters, but acknowledged “there are some (with budgets) that are tight.”
He noted, “Most are just able to pay their required bills, but there’s nothing for trucks or other equipment.”
Figures submitted with the original draft of the proposed levy put the estimated amount of funds that would be raised annually at $2 million. After additional number crunching, Wolford said, the levy that voters will decide upon in Saturday’s election will raise an estimated $1.8 million in its first year.
If approved by at least 60 percent of the voters participating in the special election, the levy will be assessed against both real and personal property.
Wolford said he is concerned that providing a figure only for the real estate tax bite could mislead voters; therefore, he noted that the average Greenbrier County homeowner with two vehicles on the tax books would pay between $60 and $80 more in total taxes per year if the levy passes.
When looking at the amount of the individual tax increase, however, Wolford asked the county’s residents to also take into account the potential reduction in homeowners’ insurance they will pay when fire departments can meet the standards for a better ISO (Insurance Services Office) rating.
“Rainelle was class 6 for several years, but we worked on some areas and the last time (ratings were issued), we squeaked by into class 4,” Wolford said. “Several homeowners told me they saw a drop of about $200 in their insurance premiums. You can see instant results in insurance premiums when the rating improves. With a fire department investment, you see a true return on your dollar.”
He added, “We all want to improve our ISO ratings. That’s one benefit of having this levy.”
Another benefit of the levy, according to Wolford, is the establishment of a fire coordinator’s office at the county level. That office would be funded through the levy, but Wolford believes some people have misunderstood the figures that have been thrown around.
He explained that while the levy language calls for an 80/20 split, with the coordinator’s office receiving 20 percent of the levy’s revenue, he expects the office to operate on no more than 5 percent of the total revenue — around $90,000 during the first year of the five-year levy voters are being asked to approve.
Wolford said he believes the coordinator’s annual budget then will fall into the 3 percent range after the start-up expenses for the office have been addressed in its first year of operation.
“The way the levy is worded, 80 percent of the revenue is straight-up divided among the 15 fire departments,” Wolford detailed. “The remaining 20 percent is set aside for countywide projects and for the coordinator’s office expenses.”
Wolford chuckled at community rumors that have put the coordinator’s salary at some $100,000 per year.
“We (fire departments) can’t set the salary — that’s going to be up to the county commission — but the Fire Association will make recommendations on how the money is spent,” Wolford said, adding that he believes the Greenbrier County Commission will respond favorably to the association’s input, much as commissions in Raleigh and Fayette have reacted to their fire associations’ recommendations.
“Because of our service area, (the Rainelle VFD) is also involved with the Fayette County coordinator, and he’s just a huge asset to every department in that county,” Wolford said.
One advantage of having a fire coordinator in place, he said, is that the central office can bid and purchase collectively for the county’s various fire departments, thereby saving each unit money.
“I think the coordinator can probably save us enough each year to offset his salary,” Wolford predicted. “It will help all of our fire departments.”
Early voting on the proposed excess fire levy will continue at the County Clerk’s office in the Greenbrier County Courthouse through Wednesday during regular office hours (8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) and today from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Election day is March 2. All polling places will be open.
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