July 29, 2008

State Looks at Funding for VFDs

By Tom Searls

There was a time when West Virginian teens hung around the local firehouse socializing, while receiving training and developing friendships that would continue through years of being volunteer firefighters in their rural communities.

State volunteer firefighters say those days are over. They have a major problem retaining volunteers, and they're still plagued by their longtime nemesis: proper funding.

A legislative interim committee has asked lobbyists for counties and county commissions to survey the funding mechanism for volunteer departments across the state.

"Several responses I had showed the biggest problem they have right now is volunteers," said Patti Hamilton, director of the West Virginia Association of Counties.

Doug Mongold, president of the state Firefighters Association, said his Moorefield department is holding its own as far as retention goes, but the issue of compensation is a major topic.

"We would like to look at the length-of-service plan," Mongold told the committee Monday.

That idea would compensate volunteer firefighters with 20 years or more of service some amount, like $200 a month, he said.

He would also like to see the state, or someone, take over the quickly rising cost of workers' compensation insurance. Privatization of that type of insurance began July 1, causing volunteer fire departments to see their rates zoom upward.

"That seems to be a huge problem," he said.

Retired professional firefighter Bernie Fazzini, now a Harrison County commissioner, likes a Prince Georges County, Md., idea of a countywide professional force that hires from its volunteer ranks.

"The only people they hire in their department are the volunteers," he said.

That has kept the department current and allowed volunteers to work to obtain certification to become professionals, he said.

"I think that would help in recruiting and retention," said Fazzini.

"From my perspective right now, it's really something to think about," said Sen. Ed Bowman, D-Hancock.

West Virginia has only 11 full-time fire departments. There are 424 volunteer departments scattered throughout the state. Several departments have a few people who are full-time, but rely on volunteers.

"I can't say I would object to it," Mongold said of the idea. "But you'd have people rebelling against it because they're in the old school."

Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, wouldn't mind toying with the plan.

"I see it as a joint state-funded, county-funded endeavor," he said.

Any direction lawmakers go could find opposition from those who want to keep volunteer departments the same and keep them in charge.

"We're going to have to have a multi-county approach," Chafin said.

County surveys showed different approaches to funding VFDs. A number have their own fire levies. Many get funding through their county commissions. All utilize contributions from the public.

Kanawha County, the state's largest, has more paid departments than the others, but also has 28 VFDs. Those are currently funded at the rate of $20,000 a year.

The cash comes from the county's General Fund unless the department is located in a coal mining area, and then it is funded through coal severance taxes. The county also has an excess levy that allocates 5 percent for police and fire projects.

Reach Tom Searls at [email protected] or 348-5198.

Originally published by Staff writer.

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