FAIRMONT, W.Va. — After a narrowly failed fire levy in the most recent election, an official with the Marion County Firefighters Association fears some of the local volunteer fire departments may have to close their doors due to financial restraints.
The levy, which would have provided funds for the county’s 13 volunteer fire departments, received 59.21 percent of voters support, but needed 60 percent to pass.
Barry Bledsoe, president of the Marion County Firefighters Association, said that levy was deeply needed.
“We’ve got departments that are just struggling to provide the service that the public deserves, and truthfully besides the money issues, almost every department in the state is struggling with manpower issues,” Bledsoe said. “It’s just hard to ask firefighters to go out all times of the day and night, all kinds of weather, plus do the training, attend the classes that we need to attend, maintain the trucks, conduct the business but yet still say, ‘Hey you need to sell some hot dogs or stand in the road with a boot to get us a few extra dollars to put gas in the truck.'”
Bledsoe said all of their departments will have to become very creative to meet the increasing financial demands of providing equipment, training, vehicles and insurance.
And while fundraisers help with that, it’s not enough.
“Unfortunately we’re having to do elimination dinners, poker runs, bass tournaments, boot drives, hot dog sales,” he said. “All things that are counter productive in the sense that we’re wearing our people out. That’s one of the reasons we don’t have enough people. We’re wearing them out.”
Had the levy passed, it would have provided every volunteer department in Marion County with $60,000/year for four years, monitored closely that it would be used only for vital needs within each department, Bledsoe said.
“It could be used for everything from fuel to truck payments to insurance to building maintenance and things like that, even for training, but we couldn’t use it to throw a Christmas party for our members or things like that,” he said.
Since the door for gaining funding didn’t open, Bledsoe said if any funding is lost, there will be a number of departments in the county that will be forced to close.
“One of the risks that we have is that the county commission money comes from coal severance, and several of the coal mines that mine for coal under Marion County now are getting close to our county line,” he said. “When they cross that line and start mining in other counties, our coal severance is going to be reduced and we may lose that money. I guarantee there are some departments in this county that will close their doors if we lose that money.”
Bledsoe said he credits the rocky situation to two changes in volunteer fire departments — one being a drop in the number volunteers themselves.
“I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and I remember when the fire whistle went off 37 years ago, you better not be standing by the door because you’d get run over by 20 or 25 people running through to get on the trucks,” he said. “When you have that many people, you’ve got people who can do some fundraisers and things like that without taxing everybody so much.”
Now, Bledsoe said, many departments are lucky to have two or three people out on a fire call.
“We just don’t have the people to do all the things we need to do to maintain the fire department, answer calls and still do fundraisers,” he said.
The second change he’s seen is the continuing rise in expenses.
“The cheapest firetruck you can buy to do the basic job is $200,000,” Bledsoe said. “You get anything more specialist like a rescue truck and equipment, you could be talking $400,000 or $500,000 for a truck, plus the cost of fuel is going up and the cost of insurance is going up.”
Bledsoe said the smallest department in Marion County pays $13,000/year just in insurance alone.
“That’s one-fourth of that department’s entire income for the entire year just in insurance alone, but just as expenses are going up, our income isn’t going up with it,” he said. “We’ve not found new source of income. We’re trying to provide the same service at a higher cost on the same budget.”