RANSON – After another election, there’s another discussion with a new Jefferson County Commission on how to financially sustain the county’s seven volunteer fire departments.
Jefferson County’s volunteer fire department leaders met with the newest county’s commission on Monday evening to address firefighting and medical rescue services issues. The meeting reviewed the roles and expectations of the county agency and the nonprofit fire departments that jointly provide firefighting and medical rescue service to county residents.
But whether the county should pursue, and particularly whether the county commission will support establishing a new household fire service fee, was the main focus of the conversation.
A fire fee, which would be on top of an existing $39 yearly household ambulance service fee, would help pay the rising costs to staff, equip and operate the volunteer fire departments.
The process to adopt a fire fee could be initiated by a citizens’ petition drive that would then go before county voters for final approval. Whether to impose a fire fee has been a recurring discussion during recent annual budget hearings for the county government. But the political will on recent county commissions to charge constituents another fee for government services has been mixed or ambivalent.
Adding to the challenge, the makeup of commission members has changed about every two years due to election results and resignations. By the time new commissioners learn the budget complexities, histories and nuances of the local fire service funding, the commission’s members shift again, resetting the debate backward and ultimately delaying the decision again, according to frustrated fire officials.
“This is not our first rodeo talking to new commissioners,” one fire official said on Monday. “You know, this is really nothing new. It just continues to get worse as the years ago by.”
About a year ago, the previous commission held a special meeting with nearly 40 fire department leaders and members to clear the air on different perspectives over how to fund emergency services. The commissioners at the time and fire officials agreed to hold discussions afterward to work on long-term funding solutions, either to possibly impose a new fire fee or a property tax levy.
The issue has since languished unresolved.
This year’s newest commissioners are Steve Stolipher and Tricia Jackson, both fiscally conservative Republicans who have voiced priorities to constrain the growth and cost of county government. Holdovers on the commission are Jane Tabb, a moderate Republican who has tentatively expressed the need for a fire fee, and Caleb Hudson, a conservative Republican who hasn’t demonstrated any enthusiasm or energy for such a fee.
Creating a new uncertainty, the commission faces the task of appointing a replacement for Josh Compton, a Republican who stepped down from a commission seat last week. He opposed adopting a fire fee. Compton’s replacement could change, or maintain the current limbo, of a fire fee.
In March, the current commission allocated $490,000 to all of the fire departments — for $70,000 to each — for the next fiscal year starting July 1. The annual amount, equally divided among the financially diverse fire companies, has been steadily declining over the years as the county’s gambling tax revenues have fallen.
The current county government budget gave the fire departments $577,500, or $82,500 for each. The previous two years the departments received $595,000 and $665,000, or $85,000 and $95,000 respectively for each.
On Monday at the Independent Fire Company station in Ranson, just before high winds wreaked havoc across town, Jefferson’s fire department chiefs and assistant chiefs repeated to the four current commissioners the case they’ve made to past commissions for more public funding. They pointed out how emergency calls have been steadily rising for years along with the cost of firefighting equipment and operations.
A new fire engine that only a few years ago would cost $150,000 would now cost $750,000 to replace, one fire department official offered Monday as an example.
Meanwhile, recruiting and retaining volunteers is more difficult as families are busier. Training and regulatory requirements have also increased, fire department leaders said. Traditional fire department fundraising through bingo nights and pancake breakfasts fundraising has also become more challenging and unpredictable.
“Every fundraiser is a gamble,” explained Marshall DeMeritt, a Shepherdstown Fire Department officer. “We don’t know when we schedule bingo if four people are going to show up. So it’s always a gamble for us. So there comes a time when we have to stop gambling with life safety in Jefferson County.”
Each county fire department has different revenue sources, ranging from endowments to fundraisers. But the financial position of each department typically fluctuates from year to year, sometimes depending on whether new emergency vehicles or equipment are purchased. Middleway Fire Department Chief Mike Mood said his organization is facing a $100,000 falloff of bingo fundraising revenue from the group-gathering shutdowns during the pandemic.
DeMeritt presented the commissioners with financial figures showing how a fire fee might help the fire departments. He displayed a chart outlining how a $75 annual single-family household fire fee (along with an $85 fire fee for rental units) and how a set of tiered commercial fire fees — mirroring a tiered commercial ambulance fee now in place — could raise nearly $1.7 million in stable operating revenue for the fire departments.
According to DeMeritt’s figures, that extra fire fee revenue would eliminate various estimated operating deficits the departments will have under the $70,000 county and $48,000 state funding they will receive this year.
In addition to presenting figures for a proposed fire fee, DeMerritt illustrated how a $125 per household ambulance fee would raise an additional $1.9 million that would pay to position all of the county’s fire stations 24 hours a day with two paid emergency staff, a service safety goal posed by JCESA administrators.
Meanwhile, stepping into the widening emergency services breach, the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency, an agency established years ago to supplement the fire and medical emergency service response the volunteer departments can’t cover, has been shouldering more of the growing, around-the-clock 911 calls for help.
For that reason, the mindset of volunteer fire department leaders toward the JCESA has flipped from only five years ago, acknowledged Bob Faas, a local volunteer firefighter and a member of the JCESA board of directors.
Before some fire department officials, while receiving contributions from the county, were guarded and defensive that the agency would move to replace the longstanding role of the county’s volunteer service, he said.
Today, fire department leaders openly acknowledge that their stations could not operate without the staffing assistance the JCESA provides them.
The JCESA now operates with 36 full-time and 30 part-time paid employees for an annual budget of $3.9 million, up from $2.1 million three years ago, mostly for new staff. Increasingly filling in for volunteers, the agency’s employees are stationed at the seven volunteer fire stations and use the emergency fire trucks and ambulances at those stations.
First imposed in 2014 to defray some of the JCESA’s staffing costs, the county’s residential and commercial ambulance fees collect about $900,000.
“I’ve lived in the county for almost 17, 18 years now, and there is a shift,” Faas said in January.
His comments were echoed during Monday’s meeting with the commissioners.
DeMerritt repeated that Shepherdstown’s department is still strongly committed to preserving volunteer rescue service in the county. But providing more stable public funding for fire departments would ease the fundraising and other time commitments now burdening rescue volunteers, he said.
That, in turn, could significantly solve the problem of recruiting and retaining volunteers, he added.