Debate on new fire fee continues

CHARLES TOWN – Rates for a proposed annual fire fee were revised downward during a recent meeting of the Jefferson County Commission, but the issue remains a source of contention between some local residents and fire officials.

The Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency has revised down its proposed yearly fire fee from $110 per household to $90 per household. The proposed commercial fire fee remains unchanged at $.08 per square foot.
Ed Smith, former chief of Independent Fire Company and operations manager of the JCESA, said the fees are needed so that the county’s fire stations can add a limited number of paid firefighters during daytime hours to fill in for a falling number of volunteers available at that time.
“Back in 2008, the fire chiefs of Jefferson County identified a problem: we did not have the volunteers to help in the daytime that we did in the past. In the past, we handled a lot of fires with two fire companies. After 2008, we got to the point where three fire companies were going to be called automatically. Now, we’re up to four,” Smith said, explaining that this phenomenon was part of a larger national trend of diminishing volunteerism at fire departments. “The volunteers are working their tails off.”
“We need this program to be initiated so we can get more resources available to help us out in the daytime,” Smith said. “In the evening the volunteers are still around.”
Smith said that volunteer hours are rising dramatically at the same time volunteerism is flagging.
“In 2000, we put in – at Independent (Fire Company) – 15,000 hours of volunteer time. Now its up to 28,000. And this is over a period of 10 years. Every year it goes up,” Smith said, adding that most of those hours were spent in training and fundraising rather than in fighting fires.
Some residents expressed considerable reservations about the proposed fee, however.
Bob Aitcheson, a local resident, argued that instituting a fee rather than raising property taxes necessitates the creation of a needless and expensive collection infrastructure.
“Unless you do a levy, you can’t use the county Sheriff’s Department, the Assessor’s Office, the infrastructure … that’s already in place,” Aitcheston said. “What this plan proposes to do is to put in place a half-a-million dollar collection apparatus that’s going to go on ad infinitum. To me that doesn’t make any sense.”
Deputy Director Ed Hannon said the JCESA had reduced its projections of the number of staff needed to collect the fee, and so the costs for the new collections infrastructure would have to be revised down.
Doug Rockwell, another local resident, questioned the veracity of the JCESA’s fee collection projections and also pointed out that the amount collected appeared to exceed the amount that would be needed by a considerable margin. Rockwell also argued that raising property taxes to pay for firefighters would be preferable to instituting a fee, since state and local taxes can be claimed as federal deductions, whereas fees cannot.
Though the residential fee has been lowered some 18 percent, the JCESA’s financial forecast predicts it will raise the same level of funding, approximately $2.9 million, as it predicted the original fee would raise.
Hannon said the JCESA revised down its cost estimates and had accordingly revised down its proposed fee level. He added that the current cost and collection estimates were only drafts and were in need of revision.
“There was a $200,000 oversight. We just found that out, and that was applied,” Hannon said. “This is a very fluid thing. We are continuing to work on it.”


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