We agree with Charles Wilfong's fight against the Upshur County fire protection fee. But we cannot agree with the methods he's used in his fight.
Yes, we agree the fire fee is unfair. As the fire fee is set up now, property owners will be assessed an annual $50 fee for each tenant in commercial or industrial buildings. That means a small business like a family-owned and -operated store will pay the same fire fee as a corporate-owned, 500-employee factory. Do a factory and a corner store pay the same fire insurance premiums? Of course not. The fire fee should be based on square footage or some other factor that would assess larger businesses more and smaller businesses less.
Yes, we agree the fire fee petitioning process is unfair. To win approval for a fire fee, proponents have as long as they want to collect signatures from 10 percent of county voters. To get the fire fee put on the ballot for a countywide vote, opponents have only 45 days to collect the signatures of 30 percent of county voters. In Upshur County, the petition drive to put the fire fee to a countywide vote came up about 150 votes short.
(It must be noted that the discrepancy in petition requirements is unfair, but not illegal. The discrepancy is written into state law. The goal of the law, no doubt, is to aid the survival of the state's numerous volunteer fire departments, which do provide critical services.)
But we can't agree with Mr. Wilfong's latest tactic in the fire-fee battle. Mr. Wilfong has registered two names, "The Upshur County Firefighters Association Inc." and "The Upshur County Fire Board Inc.," with the secretary of state's office. He now says he has exclusive rights to use those names for the 120 days. And he has warned county officials that they better not try to do any officials business (that means take steps to enact the fire fee) as part of any organization "using my reserved names."
Shenanigans like that are bound to fail. And they make opponents of the fire fee look more like cranks than concerned citizens. Instead of scheming, why not lobby county officials to make the fire fire assessments fairer. Is the current setup carved in stone?And why not lobby state lawmakers to make the petitioning law fairer?
Our advice: Keep up the fight, but stop the shenanigans.