ToquiNotes: Fire Fee for Free Argument Ain't for Me

By Jeff Toquinto on February 16, 2013 from ToquiNotes

 

The battle – at least for now – is over as it relates to the City of Bridgeport’s Fire Service Fee being imposed on non-residents living in the fire department’s first-due area. And as unpopular as this will be with a lot of people that read this blog, Harrison County Circuit Judge Thomas A. Bedell got it right. He got it 100 percent right.
 
The ink hadn’t even dried on Bedell’s ruling when the complaints started yet again. I think it’s fine individuals in the community – inside or outside the city limits – voice their opinion on the matter. The more the merrier, in fact.
 
If you want to complain and you fall under any of the following categories, feel free to at least complain in some manner. If you believe that you shouldn’t be paying for the fire fee because you don’t live in Bridgeport and would prefer to get your fire serve elsewhere, you get a pass. If you believe that there should be a manner in which you should have a say on how the fee is applied because you live outside the city, but understand that you’re receiving a state-mandated service, you get a pass. If you believe that the first-response area Bridgeport covers outside the city limits needs to be reviewed so that Bridgeport can better serve you in the event of a fire, you get a pass. If you would like to get fire service from another volunteer unit that you believe is capable, you get a pass.
 
But let me be clear about something I said in this very blog in June, if you’re expecting something for nothing, you’ll get no sympathy here. In other words, if you live outside of Bridgeport and believe that fire and ambulatory service should come at no cost to you – as many did for years – and you still want to receive it just because you’re not a resident of Bridgeport, then you’re not only wrong, you’re 100 percent wrong.
 
Thanks to Bedell’s ruling, if you’re receiving the service outside of the city limits in Bridgeport’s first-due area, then you’re going to have to pay the fee unless this matter goes to the Supreme Court and that body rules against Bridgeport. Even if that happens, my stance won’t change, much in the same manner as those who think they shouldn’t pay could care less what I write here.
 
And it should be noted very early on in this discussion, for the areas where I think those having concerns get a pass, understand your issue isn’t with the City of Bridgeport. Your issue is with the West Virginia Fire Marshal’s office. That body determines first-due areas and, according to Bedell’s review of the law, that means Bridgeport has to provide the service and has the right to charge for it.
 
It’s that same body that those concerned need to see if they want another provider. If you would like a group such as Flemington to be your first-due responder, then by all means make your complaint to the State Fire Marshal’s office. It’s that body, and no other body, that makes the ruling on first-due areas.
 
Again, that’s fine, too. I’ve got zero disagreement for those who believe that’s best for them. If that’s your prerogative, so be it.
 
Although the scenario I’m about to suggest can’t happen, I wish it could. That scenario would involve those not wanting any type of service from the City of Bridgeport– and mean it to the point you’d actually sign a waiver or some legal document saying as much as opposed to simply knowing the professionals at the department will always go on a call when life and property hang in the balance – getting their wish and fading into the sunset.
 
There are those out there that would do that in a heartbeat and, to them, I say bravo. I’m betting, though, a sizable portion simply want the status quo and that’s continued service outside the city limits at no cost. It’s more than having your cake and eating it too. It’s having your cake, eating it, choking on it and then watching the trained staff of Bridgeport’s department come to the rescue. Just because you have a different zip code doesn’t entitle you to a service others are paying for.
 
I certainly don’t understand that mindset. I haven’t since the beginning, yet it exists. I’ve had more than one friend outside the city limits tell me as much. They couldn’t really explain to me why they should get free service other than they never paid before.
 
Years ago when the fire fee first came to the public forefront, former Harrison County Commissioner Frank Angotti went before Bridgeport City Council asking Council to continue providing services to residents in places such as Maple Lake as had been the case for years at no cost. He ended his argument for the status quo with a statement to the affect that the people of Maple Lake and others getting their service for free were behind him.
 
You think so? If any elected official promised me something for free and had someone else pay for it, I’d probably be backing that too. Here’s the thing, though, for folks that think I want them to pay the Bridgeport fee because I pay for it – I don’t have a dog in this fight.
I’m not a resident of Bridgeport. I’m not a resident impacted by the imposed fire fee. And I am not an employee of the City of Bridgeport. I’m a spectator.
 
I live in Clarksburg and pay a fire service fee; I have for years. And guess what? The City of Clarksburg does not take its fire department beyond the city limits because it’s not part of their first-due area as mandated by the State Fire Marshal. Everyone in the city pays the fee as part of the first-due area.
 
The fire fee boils down to this? Do you want professional fire and ambulance service and are you willing to pay for it? If the answer is yes to both, pony up.
 
If the answer is no, go to the State Fire Marshall and ask for a change in the first-due area. Better yet, convince your legislators to approve the aforementioned waiver I suggested saying you do not want the city to respond to calls if your house is burning down or your loved one is facing an emergency health crisis – no exceptions.
 
The argument to get something for nothing holds no water. And while I have more of a sympathetic ear for those who believe a fee is being imposed on them without any representation, again, this is mandated by the State Fire Marshal and allowed by law. It’s under the same legal language – to some extent – as those who receive city water and sewage beyond the city limits. That doesn't mean that you have to receive city water or sewage to be under that rule, I'm stating that it's the same rule governing that scenario which also governs the legality of imposing the fire fee. For those that do get water and sewer, understand you also have no say on rate increases, decreases or any other matter involving that service by way of the ballot box – just a state agency named the Public Service Commission. The only real difference with fire service is that you don’t need it every day and, actually and hopefully, may never need it.
 
There are probably other arguments to consider or at least concerns for non-residents. Again, if it’s beyond wanting something for nothing, have your say. I'm betting that many that disagree with what I've written here won't even get to this point. Instead, they’ll lash out not reading that their bones of contention are ones to be tossed the way of the State Fire Marshal.
 
There’s one other thing to consider. Eliminating the services of Bridgeport - ranked as a Class IV Fire Department - will almost certainly have an impact on homeowner’s insurance unless the one you replace it with has a better classification. To my knowledge, there are no others that have that ranking or higher beyond the Clarksburg (Class III) unit or Shinnston's (Class IV) in the area. In fact, Bridgeport is ranked in the top 6 percent in the state. To what level that would raise your rates if you switch to a lower class fire service provider, I have no idea if it's more than $150 a year, but when a review is done it will be more.
 
With all of that, and if you fall under all the categories I’ve spelled out, aren’t concerned about a potential homeowner’s insurance increase now or in the future or some of the aforementioned undisclosed concerns that time prohibits me from listing, spill your guts. If your argument is that you simply want it for free because that’s the way it used to be, please exit the debate.
 
The argument, in my mind, has grown stale. I’d rather hear from a city resident or business that thinks they pay too much, that are afraid fee hikes may be coming, or that perhaps the non-residents – when the actual cost per city household is calculated based on other taxes in the general fund – aren’t paying enough than hearing someone wanting something for nothing. Again, it’s only those folks – not the ones who legitimately don’t want service and would like service from another party – who just want fire service to come their way and let the residents and businesses of Bridgeport foot the bill that I’ve got the problem with. It’s the ones who believe they should be getting something for nothing that puts a burr in my saddle.
 
Having someone else foot the bill for a service you receive doesn’t work and, more importantly, isn’t right. As much as I respect and admire Judge Thomas Bedell, I don’t need any legal ruling to tell me that.
 

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