Wood County officials smoking out fire fee issues

PARKERSBURG — The Wood County Fire Board is making recommendations to the Wood County Commission it believes will make things easier for people dealing with the fire fee bills.

Wood County Fire Services Board Chairman Kim Marshall said the board met recently and adopted recommendations and changes for the Wood County Fire Fee, all of which will have to be presented to the Wood County Commission for final approval.

The county commission approved the fire fee in May and has had issues getting it implemented over the last few months.

Residents believed the bills sent were incorrect; there were people who had not received their bills; people thinking the bills were part of a scam; the homestead exemption being figured incorrectly and other concerns. Software issues have been dealt with to handle some of those concerns.

The fire board is recommending the date the bills are sent out be changed.

Originally, the bills were going to be sent out with everyone’s tax ticket in July. The fire board now wants the next bills to be mailed on Jan. 15, 2018.

“We want to switch over to a calendar year,” Marshall said.

This is being recommended to ease the burden on the Sheriff’s Tax Office and Assessor’s Office workers who process the paperwork and handle the checks coming in.

The months of August through October are traditionally busy with people paying their property taxes, Marshall said. They wanted to do it at a time that was better for the workers in those offices to be able to handle it, he said.

Also, sending the fire fee tickets in January allows officials to have the most up-to-date assessment records available, Marshall said. Those records are what the fire fee is based off of.

“There would be no lag time,” Marshall said of when the most recent property assessments are filed and when the fire fee bills are made.

The fee, approved by the county commission in May, is assessed annually at a rate of 2 cents per square foot for residential properties and 3 cents per square foot for commercial and industrial property. The fee for industrial properties is capped at $3,000. It will not apply for buildings that are 100 square feet or less.

Non-commercial outbuildings, such as a detached garage or a large barn and a couple of sheds, are charged at a flat rate of $5 for the first building and $1 for each additional building.

Churches and religious properties are charged a reduced rate of 1.25 cents per square foot. Residents on the Homestead Exemption will be charged the 1.25 cents per square foot rate as well.

Local volunteer departments said the funds are needed to be able to maintain services and equipment.

Another recommendation the fire board wants to present to the commission is setting a “record of date” of Jan 1.

“Whoever owns a property as of Jan. 1 of each year will be the owner of record and will be responsible for the fee that year,” Marshall said.

People who are in the process of selling their property can include this information in the sales contract to let the buyer know who is responsible for the fee.

Recently, the commission approved a motion to waive any late fees this year as the issues with the fire fee were worked out.

Under the fire board’s recommendations they want to see adopted, each year all bills would go out Jan. 15 and would be due April 15 with late fees assessed after that.

The late fee for residential is currently listed as a 2 percent penalty per month and commercial is 5 percent, Marshall said.

Although the fees were waived this year, if people did not pay the fire fee they would be charged that amount on top of next year’s total.

If they owed $20 this year and did not pay the fee, they would be charged that $20 on the following year’s bill, Marshall said adding penalties would be accrued for the whole amount owed.

The fire board has secured a post office box that people will be able to mail their fire fee payments to next year.

This will prevent the Sheriff’s Tax Office from having to sort out other payments from the fire fee payment.

“It is a positive step,” Marshall said.

At its next meeting, the fire board will consider a recommendation to drop the $1 charge for each additional building on a piece of property.

Currently, if someone has a detached garage, a barn and a large shed, he would be charged $5 for one building and an additional $2 for the other buildings.

Under the recommendation they are considering, property owners would be charged $5 for any outbuildings.

“That would be for any and all buildings, regardless of number,” Marshall said. “It will actually be a reduction in the fee for a lot of people.”

Once that measure is approved, it too will be presented to the county commission for final approval.

Wood County Commissioner Blair Couch is the county commission’s representative on the fire board. Marshall said they are leaving it to Couch to set the date on the commission’s agenda and have them appear before the commission to present their recommendations.

Couch said he wanted the board to present its findings to the commission so all three commissioners can discuss them in an open forum together.

He will suggest the board submit the recommendations in writing so they can be reviewed by the Wood County prosecutor.

“It would be brought before the county commission as a modification of the fire fee,” he said. “It is a living document and it can be modified by the county commission. The other commissioners would have the chance to weigh in on certain things.”

Couch is expecting to have it put on the commission’s agenda for March.