Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

July 1, 2012

Proposed fire levy spurs debate

The proposed fire assessment fee hike for Mercer County is becoming a hot topic. Bramwell Mayor Lou Stoker mentioned that the Bramwell Fire Department is now under strict scrutiny since the fiasco concerning embezzlement of funds from that department was discovered. Stoker said that the department is now on firm footing and is recovering from the swindle.

There are nine volunteer fire Departments in Mercer County. Bluefield has a professional paid fire department and Princeton has a career and a volunteer staff.

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The proposed fire levy submitted to the Mercer County Commission is literally a carbon copy of the Raleigh County proposal with a few minor changes. Oddly the paper filed stated that, “The County Commission of the County of Mercer, West Virginia, being of the opinion that the maximum levies for the current expenses authorized by the ... code of West Virginia, as last amended, will not provide sufficient funds for payment of current (fire) expenses of the county.”

Nothing is further from the truth. The proposal was submitted by the Mercer County Fire Board and was not conjured up by the county commission. The Mercer County Commission has not reached that conclusion. In fact the county volunteer fire departments (as a whole) did not spend all of the funds allocated last year.  

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The proposed levy, as it now stands, would require the residents and businesses in Bluefield to pay two assessments — a city assessment and a county assessment. Something seems not quite fair about that.

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Interestingly, the first page of the proposed levy states that, “Expenditures which cannot be made from the levy include salaries, warning lights or sirens for the use by individuals, dress or parade uniforms, badges or patches for individuals.”

Then it gets better. Page four of the proposal goes on to state that, “the Mercer County Fire Board shall hire a Fire Board Manager and that the Fire Board office shall be funded by the levy proceeds.” How can you say that no salaries will be paid and hire two people who will be paid? Why do we need to create another bureaucracy and pay another bureaucrat or two?

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A letter posted on the Mercer County Fireman’s Association’s website states that, “There are only 905 residences in Mercer County that will pay the $30 fire fee on their residence. The proposed increase only affects residences over 2,500 square feet. If your residence meets this, your fee will now be a mere $30 a year. Businesses will pay a fee based on their square footage and not a flat rate like they are paying now.” That proposal apparently died for lack of support.

It sounds like the Mercer County Fire Board and the Firemen’s Association had two different ideas. The moral of that story is if you can’t get what you want — ask for more. Again, most us want our fire departments to have what they need and that is becoming a matter of serious debate.

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The firefighters in Kanawha County are also pushing for more funds now that Raleigh County has opened the door. However, their county commissioners are taking a hard look into the issues volunteer fire houses are facing before considering placing anything on a ballot. The Mercer County Commissioners are also taking a hard look.

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West Virginians are also paying a 911 surcharge on their phone bill and pay one of the highest rates in the nation for surcharges and taxes on homeowners’ insurance. A portion of the surcharges are designated to benefit volunteer and part-volunteer fire departments. Bluefield residents pay these charges but it is likely that the city’s paid department does not receive a portion of these benefits.

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The King Coal Highway I-73-74 Authority will hold a meeting for members of the authority at the Twin Falls State Park near Pineville on July 11.

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There you have it, a few comments on items of interest to the area. Have a great blue sky day and a safe Fourth.

Wilson Butt, a resident of Bluefield, is a retired Department of Highways official.

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