Some Berkeley County residents will soon pay more for fire protection.
Berkeley County Council on Monday gave final approval to an ordinance that changes its fire fee for those who live in unincorporated areas from a $75 flat charge to a fee based on building square footage.
The fee would stay the same for the owner of a house up to 1,249 square feet but increases for each additional 250 square feet of space, topping out at $250 annually for a 3,000-square foot house.
The fee for commercial buildings is also increasing, starting at $350 instead of $80, and going up to $10,566 for buildings over 532,000 square feet.
The fee for unimproved lots will stay a flat fee that ranges from $10 to $70 depending on the acreage.
The new fee scale will boost collections county-wide from $4.6 million to almost $8 million. The fee funds the majority of budgets for the county’s 26 rural departments.
“We have spent a lot of time on this thing, really drilling down and identifying what this money will do to help the people of Berkeley County,” said council Vice Chairman Jack Schurlknight, who called the new rate “fair and predictable.”
The extra fees will help fund equipment and training, and help the departments meet certifications.
“Of course I’m not happy about fees going up, but if paying more helps improve our fire department and ultimately leads to lower insurance rates, I’m all for it,” said Cane Bay resident Jack Carroll.
For years, residents in Cane Bay and other growing parts of the county have complained that a lack of adequate fire service has resulted in higher insurance fees. Homeowners in mega-development Cane Bay, off U.S. Highway 176 in a fast-growing part of the county, have expressed concerns about their safety as the Whitesville Rural Fire Department is three miles away on roads that are often clogged with traffic.
In addition, because insurance agencies set their rates partly based on a home’s distance to its fire department, many residents of Cane Bay pay inflated premiums, some $2,500 or more annually. Some residents have said they have heard of neighbors being turned down for insurance altogether.
As a result, residents in Cane Bay took matters into their own hands to build a station in their neighborhood.
They circulated a petition to create a special tax district, helped secure a $3 million rural development loan from U.S. Department of Agriculture and spearheaded several fundraising efforts.
But the plight of some of the smaller departments was underscored last year when the county commissioned a study of all of its volunteer departments. Some were unable to respond to requests for information because they still keep their records on legal pads since they do not have computers, Whitesville Chief Tim Stephenson said.
After the study was presented to council earlier this year, the county’s fire chief’s association “came to us with a great plan that’s going to help this county out big time,” said Councilman Tommy Newell.
To figure the increase, county officials backed into the fee schedule by determining how much the departments needed to be effective, officials said.
Collections will range from $27,433 in Pringletown to about $1.25 million for Whitesville, but the new plan also calls the 15 largest departments to contribute 6 percent of their collections to a pool that will supplement their smaller counterparts, bringing all of the budgets to at least $100,000.
At the same time, Whitesville’s budget will increase, allowing the department to move forward quicker on the Cane Bay station, officials said.
“I look forward to the coming year so we can see some really good things happen with our rural fire departments,” Schurlknight said.
The fee should be included on residents’ next tax bill, officials said. The last time the fee was increased was 2015, when the flat charge for homeowners went up by $5.
Additionally, because the council has not yet passed a budget for the current fiscal year, the council — under pressure to submit information so tax bills can be mailed in October — voted to keep the tax rates the same as last year. Taxes on a $250,000 owner-occupied home are about $2,907 annual before rebates and fees are added.