BUCKHANNON -- Upshur County firefighters say they are confident that their signature-gathering campaign to authorize a county-wide fire fee will be successful. In fact, several firefighters say they have not heard any resistance to the fee, which would significantly supplement the income of the county's seven volunteer departments.
"Everything I've heard from people has been positive," said Buckhannon firefighter Joe Bennett. "We've been talking about this for three or four months, and everyone really seems to be in favor of it."
Bennett, who is one of Buckhannon's four full-time paid firefighters, said the money will go a long way toward paying training and equipment costs.
The proposed fee -- $50 for each tenant in commercial or institutional buildings, $25 for each tenant in residential buildings and $5 for vacant properties of five acres or more -- will provide about $20,000 per year for each department, said Bennie Nazlerod, chief of the Adrian Volunteer Fire Department.
Volunteer departments currently receive about $25,000 per year from the state and about $2,500 from the Upshur County Commission. The state funds are generated from fees on insurance, Nazlerod said.
"The state funds are great," he said. "We couldn't survive without them, and some people say we don't need more than that. But I don't think people realize how much it costs to run a fire department. Some of these departments spend all that money just on loan payments for trucks."
Firefighters have been collecting signatures for several months and hope to have enough by the end of February to present to the County Commission. Firefighters need to collect valid signatures from 10 percent of the county's registered voters, or about 1,200 people. After receiving the petitions, county commissioners will institute the fee unless 30 percent of registered voters sign petitions opposing the fee.
"The signature response in our area has been tremendous," Nazlerod said. "Out of 35 houses I went to, I only got one 'no.'"
Although the $25 residential fee is slightly higher than the fee paid by Buckhannon residents, Nazlerod said most residents didn't seem to mind.
"If you think about it, we average about three or four road tolls per year and people probably give that $25 anyway," he said. "This will benefit everyone all around -- better service to the community and upkeep of our equipment. In my opinion, this is desperately needed right now.
"Every department is pushed with borrowing money to buy trucks and equipment," Nazlerod said. "This is going to give members time to do actual firefighting and training instead of wearing themselves out with fund-raising."
Each firefighter's personal equipment is also a concern, Bennett said. Unlike other public safety groups, fire departments are mandated by law about the type of equipment and training that each member must have.
"If you have 38 helmets that meet the standards today, that could change just tomorrow with a stroke of a pen," he said. "Then suddenly you have to go out and buy all new helmets."
While Buckhannon does have four paid firefighters and city-owned equipment, it also has two county-owned trucks and 38 volunteer firefighters for incidents just outside the city limits.