Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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May 15, 2014

Mercer County Firefighters Association asking to raise county fire fees

PRINCETON — Volunteer firefighters appeared Wednesday before the Mercer County Commission to ask about raising county fire fees enough to maintain their operations.

Steven Sommers, president of the Mercer County Firefighters Association, said volunteer fire departments need more money for equipment and other expenses that continue to increase while income has remained the same.

“We’ve had to carry essentially the same budget since the late ‘80s when the fire fees were enacted,” Sommers said. “We do get money from the state and that’s stayed pretty much the same; it’s used primarily to pay our workers comp, property and vehicle insurance.”

The firefighters association is hoping for enough of an increase to meet their departments’ expenses.

“We’re looking at doubling what the fire departments get,” he said. “It would greatly help in sustaining our operations. There’s one department in the county that had to borrow money to pay their bills, and we’re constantly having to take out loans on top of loans or refinancing loans to purchase what we have to have. We’re refinancing on top of refinancing.”

Firefighting equipment is expensive, Sommers said. For example, in a letter to the county commission dated March 17, he said that a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for a firefighter now cost approximately $5,200, which is an increase of $4,000 from 15 to 20 years ago. State law requires each riding position on a fire truck to have an SCBA; if a truck has three positions, this means purchasing $15,600 in SCBA equipment in addition to other equipment that can cost $2,500 to $3,000 per firefighter.

The cost of doubling fire fees would not be a major expense for residents, he said.

“I think the highest cost to a resident consumer with a 4,000 square foot home would be $45 a year,” Sommers said.

Businesses with more square footage would pay more than homeowners. A fire at a business with a 10,000 square foot warehouse filled with merchandise or materials would cost more to fight.

“What is it going to take from the local fire departments, how taxing on our resources is that going to be?” Sommers said of buildings with the potential for major fires. Fire fees would be on a tiered system to ensure that all property owners paid their fair share.

The county fire association is meeting today. Special meetings with the county commission will be scheduled then, he said.

County Commission President Mike Vinciguerra said there are ways to get a fire fee increase. In one, ten percent of the county’s registered voters would have to sign a petition stating they supported an increase in fire fees.

“We told him we would work with them as much as possible,” Vinciguerra said of Sommers’ presentation. “We would be happy to work with them any way possible because we know that they need it.”

The county commission could conduct public hearings about the fire fees, and invite representatives of the insurance industry who could explain how the closure of a volunteer fire department could impact local insurance rates, Vinciguerra said.

“I think that the more we inform the public, the better off we’ll be and the easier it will pass,” he stated.

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