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Fire fee increase stays, annual inspections go as city reworks 2021 budget

MORGANTOWN — While COVID-19 has slowed commerce to a trickle and sent Morgantown back to the drawing board in terms of its 2021 budget, outgoing City Manager Paul Brake said the 23% increase in fire fees contemplated in that spending plan will remain in place.

During council’s most recent session, the body passed what’s likely the first of multiple budget amendments. This one reduced the $39.7 million 2021 budget by $3,115,500.

The 2021 fiscal year begins July 1.

When the budget was first presented, it included a 10% increase in fire fees and recommended the elimination of 12 firefighter positions due to the expiration of a federal SAFER grant which funded them to varying degrees over the last three years.

The city’s firefighters pushed back against the plan, as did a majority of city council, and the 10% fire fee increase became a 23% increase which, along with the remaining $93,000 in grant funds and some revenue from the city’s 1% sales tax — which goes into effect July 1 — will essentially buy the city a year to figure out how the fund the positions permanently.

“The 23% fire fee increase and the 12 SAFER grant firefighters will remain in the budget,” Brake explained, adding that the city’s finance department will have hardship applications available for residents or businesses that need additional time to pay.

Further, he said penalties and interest will not be charged and a monthly payment plan can be arranged by request once the increase takes effect.

During a March 11 budget work session, Brake said residents in a 2,000 square-foot home currently paying $145 in fire fees (if paid prior to Aug. 14) will pay $179 after the increase. The jump in fees is expected to generate $435,000.

A draft ordinance of the fire fee increase is expected at Tuesday’s committee of the whole session.

While the fire fee increase remains in place, the move to annual rental inspections has been scrapped from the upcoming budget.

At the direction of Brake and Code Enforcement Director Mike Stone, the city was prepared to move to annual inspections from the current three-year rotation for the city’s 8,300 apartments and 1,100 boarding/lodging units.

The uptick in inspections was to come along with the creation of a new full-time housing tech position in the city’s code enforcement office.

Brake told council that the $64,500 initially included for the new position was part of the $3 million-plus in cuts spelled out in the budget amendment. The revenue increase anticipated from the additional inspections has also been pulled from the budget, Brake said.

Prior to the amendment, the 2021 budget projection anticipated $215,000 in inspection fees, more than doubling the $94,800 raised through inspections in the 2019 fiscal year.

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