By Kate White
PUTNAM COUNTY, W. Va. — The chief of the Teays Valley Volunteer Fire Department pleaded with Putnam County commissioners on Tuesday for more money to operate the county's volunteer fire departments.
"If you want a fire department, we have to pay for it. If you don't and we don't pay, we won't have one," John Smoot told commissioners and dozens of citizens at Tuesday's meeting. He asked commissioners to consider raising the county's fire fee.
Smoot said the average Putnam County resident pays a fire fee of about $30 a year, which he said hasn't been increased in more than 25 years. About 84 percent of county residents pay the fee, he said.
The fee raises about $782,000 annually for the county's eight volunteer fire departments to operate. Smoot said about twice that is needed.
"Volunteer forces aren't what they used to be," he said. The International Association of Cities and Counties says there should be 1.6 firefighters per 1,000 people, he said.
"That means Teays Valley needs 32 people, and we don't have that. We need help," Smoot said.
He said other ways to raise money haven't worked. The department sought federal grants but was denied. Efforts to collect delinquent fees have been stymied because the expense of collection includes a $70 court fee the fire departments are required to pay.
Billy Parsons, administrative assistant for the county fire board, said they budget $15,000 a year for court costs and professional fees.
Smoot said if a fire department responds to a home where the resident hasn't paid the fire fee, the resident is billed $250. But he said a lot of insurance companies refuse to pay, claiming that the fees aren't covered by their policies.
Those who have paid their fire fee aren't billed for a fire department response, he said.
Residents suggested exploring alternatives for raising funds other than increasing the fire fee.
Glen Yeager, owner of the Teays Center shopping plaza, said he is worried that increasing the fees might deter future business development.
Commissioner Joe Haynes said it's a bad time for the increase to be requested because of the economy. He said residents are grappling with increasing utility bills and the cost of living generally.
Commissioners didn't take any action Tuesday but said they would study the matter more and get more public comment.
The meeting was moved to the county's courtroom because the turnout was too large for commission chambers.Copyright 2011 Charleston Newspapers