Insurance Tax not Enough to Support West Virginia Fire Departments

June 30, 2008

As gas prices soar, the costs of running a volunteer fire department are rising. Now West Virginia legislature and the counties are debating over who will pay the rising costs of the state’s 424 volunteer departments.

Volunteer departments are pressing states and counties for relief as it becomes ever harder to recruit and retain the firefighters that West Virginians depend on for the vast majority of the state’s fire protection. But with officials reluctant to raises taxes or fees, it’s no surprise that state and local officials differ over who should shoulder the burden.

“The cost of being a volunteer goes up every day with the price of gas,” said Sam Love, a former volunteer chief and lobbyist with the West Virginia State Firemen’s Association. “We need to do something that will make somebody want to be a volunteer firefighter and stay a volunteer firefighter.”

The state taxes insurance policies to subsidize volunteer firefighters, providing about $40,000 annually for each department. Yet with gas above $4 a gallon, and new trucks running to $400,000, departments say they can’t attract and keep new members amid their ongoing budget crunch.

It’s not just West Virginia’s problem.

Recruitment has become an issue nationwide for volunteer departments, which account for about 72 percent of all U.S. fire departments, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. Since 1984, the number of volunteer firefighters — currently just above 1.1 million — has shrunk by more than 8 percent, the group reports.

There are about 10,000 volunteer firefighters in West Virginia. Possibilities for relief include a lifelong stipend for volunteers who serve for 20 years or more; scholarships; or help in paying workers’ compensation insurance premiums.

Whether it’s up to the state government is another matter, some lawmakers contend.

During interim legislative meetings, Sen. Ed Bowman, D-Hancock, pointed out that the counties have tools to boost revenue for volunteer fire departments.

Turning to the Legislature to raise taxes or shift spending, he argued, amounts to a dodge.

“This is local government saying, ‘You guys in Charleston will be the bad guys, and we won’t take any action at the local level,”‘ he said.

Those tools may be unpopular because one is a tax, the other a fee.

Counties can impose excess levies to help fire departments much as school boards raise taxes — although the excess levy for firefighters must be supported by 60 percent of voters, compared with 50 percent for schools.

Bowan said counties should instead consider another tool, a little used fire service fee.

Counties which have fire boards can impose such a fee — usually a flat fee for residents and a higher charge for businesses — if a petition signed by 10 percent of voters requests it.

Both the West Virginia Association of Counties and the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia say only a handful of counties have such a fee in place.

One is Upshur, where County Administrator William Parker estimates it brings in between $25,000 and $30,000 a year. While that’s not much, he said, it’s better than nothing.

“Nobody likes to pay an additional fee, but this is a vital emergency service,” he said.

Tom Miller, a 23-year volunteer at the Sissonville Fire Department, takes issue with a fire fee, saying the problem is statewide.

“It’s a problem that affects all 55 counties,” he said.

Miller favors a stipend for 20-year veterans and says firefighters have suggested other ideas such as giving volunteers free hunting and fishing licenses, or a property tax break. He’s frustrated lawmakers at both the state and county levels seem reluctant to make unpopular decisions.

“We’re in the middle of an election year, so any mention of anything with taxes is taboo,” he added.

Harrison County Commissioner Bernie Fazzini, a retired professional firefighter, suggested one inexpensive fix. At the past week’s interim meetings, he suggested amending state law to require anyone wishing to join one of the state’s 11 paid fire departments to put in three years as a volunteer.

Once volunteers have become career firefighters, Fazzini said, many will still donate time to volunteer departments.

“If we use our volunteer fire departments as a training facility for our paid departments, it would be an incentive,” he said.

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