Volunteer fire companies face challenges

There are 444 volunteer fire departments throughout West Virginia compared to only a handful of full-time paid departments in the state’s larger cities. Even in Kanawha County, home of the state’s largest paid municipal fire department in the city of Charleston, there are more than 20 volunteer fire departments.

And these volunteer firefighters are not limited to merely putting out fires. Tom Miller, who is no relation, the chief training officer for the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department, told a Charleston newspaper recently “if you can’t shoot it, handcuff it or throw it in the back seat of a car … it’s a job for the fire department.”

So these dedicated volunteers not only have to cope with fires but also deal with traffic accidents, water rescues and even hazardous materials spills. And because of increasing costs of operation — particularly workers compensation coverage — along with the fact that fewer young men are willing to become volunteer firefighters, many departments are now facing a crisis.

The Kanawha County Commission is currently giving serious consideration to placing a special excess levy on a special election ballot that would help finance these volunteer departments after Raleigh County voters passed such a levy on May 8 with a 63 percent majority of the vote.

As the state’s largest county in population, Kanawha County already has a bus and ambulance levy that includes tax revenues of $350,000 a year for the volunteer fire departments. Each department receives $20,000 each year from that levy. But in a county where many of the voters live in cities that have paid fire departments, is it likely they will be willing to contribute to a countywide tax to support the volunteer units?

The Barboursville Volunteer Fire Department in Cabell County solicits donations from homeowners in its coverage area with a mailing that recommends a payment of three cents per square foot of the residence and suggests payment options of quarterly, semi-annually or annually. For instance, a homeowner with 2500 square feet of space is asked to consider paying $75 a year to support the volunteer department.

Mayor Paul Turman said the Barboursville municipal budget of about $5 million annually includes an $80,000 allocation to the volunteer fire department. A municipal excess levy in Barboursville also provides about $40,000 more each year to the overall $400,000 cost of one of the state’s largest volunteer departments.

A surcharge on every insurance policy issued in West Virginia also provides some money for each volunteer fire department statewide. The treasurer of a Cabell County volunteer fire department said in an e-mail comment to a Charleston newspaper story about the Kanawha County Commission’s consideration of a fire levy that the insurance surcharge provides about 35 percent of his department’s annual budget.

Former legislator Sam Love, now a lobbyist for the state’s 400-plus volunteer fire departments, spent 30 years as a volunteer firefighter himself and was fire chief of his Hancock County unit for 10 years. He said there are now about 10,000 volunteers statewide. He agrees that workers’ compensation costs pose the biggest problem now for the volunteer departments.

Meanwhile, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin returns this week from a 10-day economic development tour of Japan, seeking to find additional potential new business ventures that might be interested in locating in West Virginia in the future. And one of his first major tasks now that he’s back is to choose a successor for Secretary Mike Lewis of the Department of Health and Human Resources.

Dr. Lewis, a family physician and former dean of the Charleston campus for the West Virginia University Medical School, has announced his resignation effective at the end of the month, which is also the end of the state’s current fiscal year. Lewis is still recovering from unspecified surgery two weeks ago. He was working in North Carolina when he became one of the first cabinet secretaries chosen when Tomblin took over as acting governor in November of 2010 after then-Gov. Joe Manchin resigned to accept a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The Department of Health and Human Resources is a mammoth state agency with about 5,700 employees and an annual budget of about $4 billion that continues to grow. It’s not clear yet if the governor has a permanent successor in mind and may well decide to name an interim secretary while he undertakes a wide-ranging search for a permanent replacement.

Finally, only 29 of West Virginia’s 55 counties share in the state’s severance tax on coalbed methane, a natural gas that comes from beds of coal. The total amount distributed this year is $1,227,427 and more than half of that amount goes to three counties with the 26 others each receiving equal payments of $15,188 each, according to a recent report from State Treasurer John Perdue.

Raleigh County tops the list, receiving $543,532. Marshall County is second with a payment of $246,542 and Wetzel County third with $42,465. Perdue said the 26 counties getting equal payments don’t produce any methane gas or is of such a small amount it is preferable to classify them as non-methane counties as permitted under state law.

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