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Fire, EMS fee discussed at public meeting

By Staff | Jan 13, 2012

SHEPHERDSTOWN – D.L. Morgan and his father and brother have spent years serving Jefferson County by volunteering as firefighters at the Shepherdstown Volunteer Fire Department. His father even once served as chief.

But, even as officials at Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency and its seven member fire departments take a plea to volunteers and citizens about a potential fire and EMS impact fee, Morgan said he just can’t support it. He simply doesn’t want to pay what seems like just another tax.

Officials from the SVFD and JCESA presented current challenges facing county stations to attendees of Monday’s kickoff public meeting on the fees. Three more meetings will follow.

EMS Lt. Marshall DeMeritt stressed to attendees that the fee, should it be implemented, is about the future and saving lives.

“What we’re truly talking about is the future of your kids and your grandkids,” he said.

The fee, a proposed $110 annually for residents and 8 cents per square foot for commercial property owners, would add $273,000 to the already $427,000 that is divided between the seven departments.

If instituted, each station would receive a total of $100,000, instead of the $61,000 in the current county funding model. DeMeritt said the other $1.4 million that is provided by the county would be given to JCESA to provide additional staffing to supplement volunteers.

According to DeMeritt, the extra money would still not even cover costs and challenges facing each station, but every bit would help.

DeMeritt said not only has Jefferson County seen a 27-plus percent growth in the past 10 years, but the cost of equipment and maintenance, a dwindling volunteer force and a decrease in fundraising efforts makes it harder to do business.

“We realize there’s a shortfall in our system,” DeMeritt said, “but we’re moving forward to strengthen our fire and emergency services systems.”

He said the way to do this is through a strategic plan, which would include the impact fee. The plan also focuses on volunteer recruitment and retention, training, facility and equipment needs and securing a consistent revenue stream.

“You are our No. 1 priority … (but) we have changes that we need to make,” DeMeritt said.

Clai Lashley, a county resident who had recently moved back to the area from Berkeley County, wondered if Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races would be able to contribute to the JCESA’s funding issue.

Jefferson County Commissioners Dale Manuel and Walt Pellish, who attended Monday’s meeting, said the money the county gets from the racetrack goes into a capital fund for the future. Manuel said while currently the county gets approximately $5 million annually from table and video lottery games, the county’s budget already allocates about 45 percent of its budget to safety. The other 55 percent, he said, goes to other county services.

Mike Pittinger, retired chief from Citizens Fire Co., wondered how county safety officials would go about recruiting volunteers.

Ed Hannon, deputy director of JCESA, said going to high schools and holding a junior cadet program is one possibility they are looking at.

“Get them involved when they’re young,” Hannon said.

Morgan, who spoke up frequently throughout the meeting, also stressed that “fat” needed to be cut.

“I think if they’re going to hire more people, they should cut down on people they already have,” he said.

Morgan also wondered if there could be cuts in the county government to afford more money allocations to the agency and its departments.

After the meeting, Hannon noted that there are issues still being hashed out in the strategic plan’s committee, such as looking what to do if property owners can’t afford to pay the fee if it is passed by the County Commission.

“The ordinance isn’t written yet. It’s in draft format,” Hannon said.

Other issues that came up at the meeting that the committee is looking at are equal allocation of funds to departments and government-owned buildings, which would be exempt from paying the fee.

“We anticipated some negativity,” Hannon said of Monday’s meeting. “And that’s why we’re doing the public meetings – to educate them of the need.”

There will be three more meetings – on Jan. 17 at Blue Ridge Mountain Fire Co.; Jan. 25 at Independent Fire Co.; and Jan. 26 at Friendship Fire Co., all at 7 p.m. – before the County Commission holds a public hearing. The commission has yet to set a date for the hearing. If the commission passes the proposal, the fee would be implemented July 1.

More information is available by visiting www.jcesa.org or www.facebook.com/jcwvfee.