Fire fee to get hearing

CHARLES TOWN – A proposed emergency services fee will get an airing during a public hearing Thursday, a week after Jefferson County commissioners rejected a plan that would have eliminated the body charged with administering it.

[cleeng_content id="241189755" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]The hearing will be held at 7 p.m. in the basement of the Old Charles Town Library, in the same room where the County Commission meets weekly.

Lyn Widmyer

Lyn Widmyer

The proposed fee, revenue from which would provide funding for additional paid fire and emergency medical services staff at local volunteer firehouses, would effect both residential and commercial property owners.

The Jefferson County Fire and Rescue Association and the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency, which was created in 2008 with an eye toward implementing such a fee, have been working on a draft fee ordinance for several years.

Fire officials say the fee is vital to maintaining the county’s level of service in both firefighting and emergency medical services categories. Volunteerism, they point out, has been waning throughout the county for years, and more volunteers now work outside the area or have jobs that do not allow them to leave during work hours to respond to an emergency.

“There has been a huge decrease in volunteerism, mostly due to the amount of hours that you have to put in and the continuing education that is (required of) the EMTs,” JCESA board member Dr. Robert Jones told the commission.

In its current form, the fee would be assessed to different property owners based on the square footage of the buildings they own, depending upon whether those buildings are commercial or residential structures.

For residential structures, $55 would be paid annually by homeowners whose houses are smaller that 1,600 square feet, $75 for houses up to 3,000 square feet, and $85 for houses larger than 3,000 square feet.

Commercial structure owners would pay one of seven different annual fees, depending on the square footage of their structures, ranging from $115 for structures smaller that 2,500 square feet to $2,200 for structures up to 100,000 square feet. Commercial structures larger than 100,000 square feet would have to pay an additional 30 cents for each additional square foot.

Substantial late fees – around 15 percent of the base rate – would be assessed on homeowners who failed to pay the fee before Sept. 30, once the fee has gone into effect.

The fee ordinance would go into effect on June 30, but the fee would not be levied until next July, after the JCESA has developed a budget for the funds.

Patsy Noland

Patsy Noland

The County Commission would have the opportunity to adjust the fee once yearly.

A proposal last week by Commissioner Patsy Noland would have delayed tomorrow’s public hearing while an alternative proposal – which would have eliminated the JCESA, along with all administrative positions and funneled emergency service fee funding directly to volunteer fire departments to fund paid staffing – met with wide opposition from local volunteers, JCESA personnel and the Fire and Rescue Association.

That proposal was rejected in a 4-1 vote, with only Noland supporting the proposal.

“I am not willing to delay this public hearing to add to the mix the dissolution of the Emergency Services Agency,” said Commissioner Lyn Widmyer.

Commissioner Dale Manuel said he had attended a meeting between the JCESA and volunteer fire companies the night before. “There was no backing of the alternate proposal,” he said.

The JCESA has held a series of public workshops over the last year with the intention of explaining the need for the fee to the general public.[/cleeng_content]

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