FAYETTEVILLE — When that late night or weekend emergency call is necessary, officials want to make sure someone will be available to head out in the field to respond in a timely fashion.
A renewal of the five-year Fayette County Commission special levy up for approval on Saturday, Feb. 8, will make that much more likely, county emergency officials stress.
Fayette County Fire Coordinator Joe Crist and Fayette County Sheriff Mike Fridley recently sat down to discuss their perspective on the importance of renewing levies that support law enforcement, libraries and fire protection in the county.
The levy that voters will be asked to renew on Feb. 8 will cover the next five fiscal years beginning July 1, 2020. If approved, the levy will raise $1,116,623 annually for salaries and benefits for the sheriff's department, $510,061 annually for operation of the county library system, and $1,658,852 yearly for fire protection services.
The levy is geared toward the three entities independently. All three can pass or fail individually. At least 60 percent of voter approval is required for passage.
In 2015, each levy received overwhelming support from voters. Passage was 88 percent for law enforcement, 89 percent for library, and 90 percent for fire. A total of 1,971 people, representing seven percent of the county's registered voters, turned out to vote.
Crist and Fridley, first off, both stressed that the special levy is simply a continuation of previous levies and will not result in tax increases for county citizens. It has been in place since 1981, and only one time — during the Nov. 1980 general election — did a levy fail. The law enforcement levy gained just 59 percent of the vote at that time.
The rate of the law enforcement levy per $100 of assessed valuation is as follows:
• Class I property — 2.43 cents
• Class II property — 4.86 cents
• Class III property — 9.72 cents
• Class IV property — 9.72 cents
The rate of the library levy per $100 of assessed valuation is as follows:
• Class I property — 1.11 cents
• Class II property — 2.22 cents
• Class III property — 4.44 cents
• Class IV property — 4.44 cents
The rate of the fire protection levy per $100 of assessed valuation is as follows:
• Class I property — 3.61 cents
• Class II property — 7.22 cents
• Class III property — 14.44 cents
• Class IV property — 14.44 cents
According to an information handout prepared in support of the levy, the fire levy allows:
• Fire departments in Fayette County to have better equipment and, in turn, better Insurance Service Office (ISO) ratings, which would mean lower homeowner's insurance rates. It also allows the departments to meet State Fire Commission requirements.
• Fire departments to obtain group bids on equipment, which results in lower equipment prices that save taxpayers money.
• Fire prevention events to be conducted in schools and at civic functions and for the elderly.
• A smoke detector program to remain active.
• Payment for state-mandated training courses to allow the highest level of firefighting and rescue skills at no cost to the volunteer firefighter.
• Fire engine replacement. Departments can replace apparatus every 25 years. The levy paves the way for the replacement of about five fire engines in the county every five years.
The law enforcement levy:
• Provides law enforcement coverage throughout Fayette County 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
• Pays the salary and benefits of 23 deputies.
The library levy:
• Allows six public libraries in the county to remain open.
• Pays for complete or partial operation of the branch libraries, as well as the bookmobile and the headquarters building.
• Allows the FCPL to offer a wide array of programming for both children and adults, as well as a number of services.
"This has been going on since 1981," said Fridley. "It would be detrimental to the county if it wouldn't pass."
Fridley warns that failure could result in layoff of 23 of his department's 36 deputies (13 are on the general budget). That would dramatically reduce coverage throughout the county, particularly on nights and weekends, as the remaining deputies would first be required to fulfill sheriff's statutory duties that include transporting prisoners, providing courthouse security, serving papers, and making mental hygiene calls. It would also place more of a burden on State Police to provide coverage, he said.
The scenario of dialing the county's 911 emergency center and dispatchers not having anybody to immediately send on a call, whether it be law enforcement or fire, would be "devastating" to the county's citizens, said Fridley. "And it's going to cost them more in the long run if it fails.
"I could lose 23 deputies that are carried on this levy, (with) salary and benefits paid for. That would leave me 13 deputy sheriffs to run the county. That's scary.
"I think the citizens have supported first responders and the libraries since 1981, and I think they still support us," Fridley said. "They know the kind of job we are doing in this county. I just ask for them to come out and vote yes on all three."
Included among the casualties in the event of nonpassage would be elimination of a drug task force (which includes two deputies), elimination of the detective bureau, and decreased ability to investigate sex crimes and child abuse situations, Fridley said.
Also, the sheriff pointed out that an ongoing joint operation between the Fayette County Firefighters Association and the Fayette County Sheriff's Department would be hampered if levy funds dry up. "The sheriff's department and the fire association are working hand-in-hand on a lot of things, and one of the big things (is that) we were able to partner up to bring back Project Lifesaver (which provides electronic tracking of at-risk individuals)," said Fridley. The project allows first responders to "have a better chance of finding a loved one that has wandered off."
Crist, a fire service veteran of more than four decades, says keeping the county's 15 fire departments, especially those in the rural geographic pockets, is crucial.
"You've got fire departments that are in the rural areas, like Nuttall, Armstrong Creek, Loup Creek, Gauley River up at Jodie, Danese over next to Meadow Bridge; they're all small, rural departments, and their operation pretty much depends on this fire levy," Crist said.
"Yes, we do get state money that is based on tax premiums on insurance that usually ranges about $40,000 a year," he added. "But, by the time you pay insurance on a fire station, insurance on a truck, workers' compensation, fuel for the trucks, replacement for turnout gear ($5,000 a set); that's hard to do with $40,000 a year.
"I've been in this fire service for 41 years, and I can remember the days that we had to go out and do bake sales, hot dog sales, ramp dinners. During the Country Roads Festival at Hawks Nest State Park, we would go out on a Sunday and take a boot and stand out in the middle of Route 60 and get donations from passing cars. We might be able to buy a couple of nozzles and a piece of rescue equipment we might need."
Crist said he recalls hearing stories about fire chiefs and assistant chiefs taking money out of their own pockets to pay for gas for the trucks on which their departments made emergency runs. And, "Back in 1981 when this levy was first passed, we were able to buy fire trucks at $75,000. You can't touch a fire truck now for less than $400,000."
Nonrenewal of the fire levy resulting in closure of some of the smaller departments — besides having possible dangerous consequences — would cause some homeowners to see their home insurance rates rise because they would be farther away from remaining fire protection service.
"If you live within six miles of a fire department and you've got fire hydrants close by, your insurance is going to be lower than if you live 10 miles away from a fire department," said Crist. And if some of the rural departments would be "forced to be closed down because they can't afford to keep their doors open, then a neighboring department would have to pick up that area." With the Loup Creek department, for example, Oak Hill or Montgomery responders would have to step in and provide coverage.
Crist said the sheriff's department and the fire association have worked together to teach classes in different areas. Also, when the fire association obtained a FEMA grant for new breathing apparatus for the departments in the county, the old apparatus was given to the sheriff's department and State Police for their use, and the firefighters provided training on the equipment. The department also sets up decontamination tents for officers to use in the event of meth lab busts.
Becky Kellum, the director of the Fayette County Public Library, has been in her position for less than a year so she doesn’t have the same history of working with the levy as Crist and Fridley.
“I’ve never worked at a library that was supported by a levy,” she said recently, “but it’s always passed, I’ve been told.”
She said failure of the levy would be a disaster for the future operation of the county’s six library branches, the bookmobile and the administration building.
“It would be catastrophic for the county. We would have to shut buildings. We might be able to go for (a little while) and then we’d have to shut buildings down and lay people off,” she said.
“(The levy) maintains the buildings. It helps pay for the utilities, maintenance. We do get help from the West Virginia Library Commission, but that pays the salaries. If we don’t have the rest of it, we can’t pay for the buildings.”
Those buildings, the staff and their services are used and relied upon by the people of Fayette County, Kellum said.
In fact, according to a poll released last month by Gallup, visiting a public library is the most common leisure-time cultural activity engaged in throughout the United States.
“Visiting the library remains the most common cultural activity Americans engage in, by far. The average 10.5 trips to the library U.S. adults report taking in 2019 exceeds their participation in eight other common leisure activities,” a Jan. 24 article at https://news.gallup.com stated, including going to the movies.
While the library and its workers may not be in the life-saving business as are the sheriff’s department and the county’s fire services, it is in the life-enhancing business.
“The programming that we do for children and adults, the books we get for them from other libraries, the bookmobile service. Some people come in just to use the computer; they’ll do job applications or something like that, research how to prepare a resumé.
“They can even work a puzzle and we have coloring books if they want to do that,” she said, adding the list of services offered by the library system is far more than people imagine.
“Notaries, for instance. We do free notaries. We did 1,190 last year” among the other services, including one that surprises many.
“If you have a West Virginia Library Commission library card, they have (the television channel) Acorn. You can use your card to watch those movies or television shows on your tablets.
“(At home) we have Firesticks. I went to the internet and hooked it up and I can watch it on my TV,” she said.
The director said she appreciates the support shown for the county library system in the past.
“People do support the library. I’m very glad that they do, as well as the sheriff’s department and the fire departments.”
As a fairly new resident of Fayette County, Kellum pointed out that, appropriately, the levy election will be her first vote as a West Virginian.
Early voting is ongoing in three locations in the county: the Fayette County Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Building in Fayetteville, Montgomery Town Hall and the Danese Community Center from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturday. Election Day at usual precincts is Saturday, Feb. 8, from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m.
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(Cheryl Keenan contributed to this story.)