Fire Board seeks solution to fund additional firefighters

BUCKHANNON The Upshur County Fire Board met Tuesday to continue working towards a solution of how to fund three additional full-time firefighters for the Buckhannon Fire Department.

BFD Chief J.B. Kimble proposed the need for additional paid workers, as the department is in the process of seeking accreditation and views the issue as a safety necessity. The department has been struggling with maintaining their numbers, as volunteering numbers are dangerously low. He explained that the department is sometimes forced to respond to fires with only one person on a fire engine. Kimble explained the need for additional workers is imperative.

Mayor Robbie Skinner and Buckhannon’s City Council has been scrambling to find a solution towards funding the additional firefighters, as the City’s 2021-2022 Budget is due March 28. With just one remaining City Council meeting before that date, the county-wide funding issue must be solved quickly.

One proposed option was to use funding from the City Sales Tax, which was implemented on January 1, 2020. Since it was set in place, the tax revenue has raised over $1.6 million. This option was supported by Mayor Skinner; however, several Council members did not support using this funding avenue due to the fact that the money fluctuates frequently, leaving little stability to ensure the worker’s pay.

The second option, which created a great deal of debate, was to implement a First Due Fire Fee to those within the limits of BFD’s primary responsibility. Those in the first due area would pay their fire fee to the City, rather than to the Upshur County Fire Board. In turn, this would drastically cut the funding going to the Fire Board, ultimately leaving a small amount of money to distribute to the county’s six additional fire departments. The remaining fire departments are volunteer-only and have no paid staff members. They reportedly cannot afford to lose funding and Mayor Skinner opposed this option.

Fire Chief J.B. Kimble explained that BFD covers roughly 54 square miles, covering areas well out of city limits. He added that 40% of the calls they respond to are out of the city.

BFD desperately needs additional workers to continue safely and promptly responding to emergencies in the area, according to Chief Kimble. The Upshur County Fire Board cannot realistically provide sufficient amounts of money to volunteer-only departments if the First Due Fire Fee is implemented.

Currently, city residents pay $36 a year to the City for fire services, and residents outside city limits pay $25 a year. The First Due Fire Fee would require all citizens within the response area of the BFD to pay to the City, while the remaining citizens of Upshur County continue paying to the Fire Board. In 2020, Upshur County’s Fire Board received $267,000 from these fire fees. The First Due Fire Fee would take away an estimated $152,000 from this fund, which ultimately keeps volunteer-only departments afloat.

Because of the fact that each option seems to ultimately disadvantage the local first responders, Mayor Skinner proposed a solution in Tuesday’s meeting. Although no final decisions have been made, if the City’s budget passes, the Mayor suggested to use the “CARES Fund” to provide funding to the new firefighters for their first year.

City Recorder Randy Sanders explained, the Mayor would likely propose “to use $200,000 from the General Fund, which came to us by way of CARES Act reimbursement for the City’s Police and Fire departments salaries and benefits. Of course, Council members still have the opportunity to ask questions and offer other alternatives at the upcoming Council meeting this Thursday evening.”

This would allow the Upshur Co. Fire Board and City Council an additional amount of time—almost one year—to work together and determine a permanent funding solution. This proposed solution will be discussed and voted on during the City Council meeting on Thursday. Their decision will determine where funds will be pulled from to ensure the stability of Buckhannon’s Fire Department, furthering their accreditation process, and allowing BFD to respond to calls safely and quickly.

Mayor Skinner explained, “A community problem deserves a community response. We have to involve everybody that has a stake in the game to resolve the issue.” Skinner continued, “Over the next year, we’re going to work with [the Upshur Co. Fire Board] to try to come up with whatever the solution looks like moving forward to make sure that our staffing is appropriate and continues to be a priority. We’re not saying at all that we’re funding this for a year and then those three may be laid off. That’s not what we’re saying at all. But to start the ball rolling with getting the firemen hired ASAP, we’re working toward using the CARES money, and then working toward a solution after that. Because we recognize the need that Chief Kimble has at the City’s Fire Department with staffing.”

Upshur County Commission President Kristie Tenney expressed, “I personally would like to thank the Mayor for coming, and everyone that’s here. I know we’re here because we care about first responders, and we care about fire service. We’re all here for that same reason. I just want to thank everyone in this room that goes out and does what you do for US. I think it is a thankless job, and you do a lot for us.”

All City and County officials, firefighters, and fire Chiefs that attended the meeting could reach a mutual agreement that no one wants to see any of the departments suffer financially. Each department helps one another in more ways than one—with responses, equipment, training and information—and many consider their fellow firefighters as friends.

The City Council meeting will take place on Thursday, March 18 at 7:00 p.m. in Council Chambers.


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