PARKERSBURG, W.Va.-(WTAP) The Wood County Commission has reached a payment agreement with the volunteer fire departments in the county in regards to the fire fee.
The 10 departments will pay back $8,500 each. Originally, they were lent $17,000. Since there was a big gap between the time the fire fee went into effect and when the fiscal year began, the remaining $8,500 will be forgiven.
Changes are on the way for those who have to pay the Wood County fire fee.
The changes now mean all-non profit organizations will be charged a rate originally charged only to churches.
There was an issue raised about the classification change of some residential property to commercial status-particularly applying to apartment buildings-a change one resident Monday morning argued would raise rates for that property by 50%.
"That would actually increase by a penny per square foot, for everybody that had two or three apartments," said Commission President Blair Couch. "So that truly was an increase in the fire fee, and without a 10% vote, we would not have been able to do so. So we're having the attorney review it, and make sure that is correct, that we understand."
Pending that opinion, the commission voted to eliminate that change from the ordinance.
The fire fee board also plans to pay part-time a person who has been working for the board on a volunteer basis.
That person has been working to help smooth out the original billing process.
The commission voted to approve the rest of the changes, but has not yet voted to approve the amended fire fee ordinance.
That will happen at a later commission meeting.
While it's new to Wood County, the fire fee could soon see some changes.
Officials say the recommended changes come from lessons learned from its first year.
The changes make the person responsible for paying the fee the individual who owned the property in question on the first of January of each year.
Mailing of invoices will take place each year on January 15th, with payments due April 15th.
"The fire board passed a recommendation that, if by April 16, 2018, any past due bill would be added to the current past due amount," Commission President Blair Couch also noted from the board's proposals, "and charged a penalty on the full amount past due for both 2017 and 2018, with interest bearing."
That interest is estimated at one percent.
The fire service board also recommends doing away with an additional one dollar service charge for sheds, barns and garages on personal property, changing that to a flat $5, regardless of the numbers of individual buildings.
The only verbal opposition came from Commissioner Bob Tebay, who questioned the board's proposal to hire a clerk for the board.
Tebay cited discussion during the process of implementing the fee stating there would be no further personnel hires from the fire board.
The commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes later this month, before there's a final vote.
The first meeting among all of Wood County's newly-elected officials included a discussion about the new fire fees.
The commission discussed possibly hiring a clerk, perhaps on a part-time basis, to oversee implementation of the fee.
The sheriff's tax office, as it is for other types of taxes and fees, is in charge of collection of the fee money.
Sheriff Steve Stephens says that hasn't been an easy task, since there are still people upset because they did not know the fee went into effect.
He says one person even protested recently, by paying his fee bill in pennies.
"And my employees are dealing with that kind of stuff, that we don't have any control over, but we take the retribution for," Stephens said. "I'm going to defend my employees when it comes down to it, and, if we accept other responsibilities, we need to be compensated for it."
The county department heads also discussed putting into effect a uniform policy for awarding comp time for their employees.
In the past, each office set its own compensatory time policy.
The commission hopes to hold more meetings with the county's newly-elected officials.
Wood County says it's working to clear up problems with the new fire fee.
New letters are being sent out to 2,000 residents who either never got them-because of incorrect addresses-or to people who got multiple bills.
The letters explain the fee and who is billed for it-since some people said they were unaware of the fee, or thought it was a scam.
Meanwhile, the Wood County Fire Service Board has been answering residents' questions about the new fee.
"Generally, most of the calls now are mathematical issues," says Kim Marshall, fire board chairman. "There were billing errors because they should have received one bill but received four bills because they had a home and three outbuildings or a barn and two outbuildings. So that was confusing to them. So, going forward, they would just receive one bill."
The deadline to pay the fee was January 31st, but it now has been extended.
"It's April this year, April 30th. It will be a time period after January 31st," Marshall says. "That will give us time between then and the end of June to get the errors corrected. We're also working on getting out next year's billing, and the letter explains that as well."
Marshall says in the future, bills will be mailed in January and due in March.