Wood County Commission agrees to establish fire board

PARKERSBURG – Wood County commissioners have agreed to establish a fire association board.

Representatives of the Wood County Firefighters Association asked the commission Monday to make a decision on a request submitted in March to form the board.

The vote to approve the formation of the board was unanimous.

By code, the board would have authority to enter into contracts, borrow money, apply for grants, petition the commission for funds, seek donations, contributions from any source, raise funds by the issuance and sale of revenue bonds, purchase or acquire, and sell real or personal property.

The fire association board members are not to receive any compensation for their services as board members. They can seek reimbursement for expenses in connection with their duties.

There is also a process in the code to seek a fire fee to be paid by rural residents covered by the 10 volunteer departments if the proper petition procedures are followed.

The 7-member board is to consist of three private individuals appointed by the county commission from each of the county’s three magisterial districts; one county commissioner and representatives of the firefighters.

Commission President Wayne Dunn questioned the need for the board and asked what their authority would entail, including whether the board could recommend a fire fee.

“The first step is establishing the board,” K.C. Linder, spokesman for the firefighters said.

“My concern is not forming the board, but to what extent it relates to fees. This area has not completely recovered from the recession we suffered. We all have to share in the cost, I recognize that, but my concern is the financial interest,” Dunn said.

Prosecutor Jason Wharton said state code provides the procedure for a fire fee.

To start the process, a petition with 10 percent of the qualified voters signatures must be presented to the clerk directing the county commission to impose such a fee. Public notice must be published of the proposal. If 30 percent of the qualified voters file a petition in opposition within 45 days of the publication, the fee cannot be effective until it is ratified by a majority of the voters, according to the state code.

“Brooke County is running a levy, it’s a percentage of property tax. The city of Parkersburg had a flat fee,” Commissioner Blair Couch said.

“That flat fee was struck down in circuit court, now the city is charging by square footage,” Commissioner Steve Gainer, former city of Parkersburg fire chief said.

Linder noted any fees would not include Parkersburg and the code prohibits paid departments from having representation on the fire service board.

“I think having the board, in and of itself, is a good idea, and I have no problem with doing that,” Couch said. “I would suggest we develop some sort of process for selecting the three private citizens to the board and take our time and do it right.”

Linder said if the fee is considered, the firefighters “are thinking a percentage would be best.”

“I always prefer allowing the voters to have a say in it,” Couch said. “But I’m not opposed to forming the board.”

“I can see the need for the board,” Dunn said, asking if the main purpose was to make fire service operations easier and whether the fee or levy would be to improve fire services.

“I would answer yes to both,” Linder replied.

“I would rather see it on the ballot. I think communication is key, sometimes the firefighters live in a vacuum and think we don’t care, but that’s not true,” Couch said. “We have one election coming up and then the general election. The community is willing to pay for services they feel are needed, and I think you would be a slum dunk.”

The county’s ten volunteer fire departments and the city of Parkersburg fire department are already members of the Wood County Firefighters Association, but that organization does not have the authority or the powers afforded a fire service association board. The code allows county commissioners to create such a fire service board, but does not require such action.

The county commission is required to provide fire protection services, which are currently designated to the county’s ten volunteer fire departments.

Firefighters said earlier with additional training and federal regulations relating to equipment, they are struggling to survive on contributions and fundraisers, noting only about 20 percent of the people support the volunteer departments.

The county currently provides $17,000 annually for each of the county’s ten volunteer fire departments; $6,000 to the Wood County Firefighers Association for fire school and an additional $22,000 a year for life insurance for the firefighters.