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County VFDs ‘blindsided’ to hear city request days before levy deadline

MORGANTOWN — Monongalia County Volunteer Fire Association President Mickey Rinehart said the county’s volunteers were “blindsided” to learn of a last-minute push from the city of Morgantown to be included in the renewal of the county-wide excess fire levy going before voters in May.   

Rinehart said the association, which organized, presented and campaigned for both the original fire levy passed in 2016 and the initial renewal passed in 2020, has yet to hear anything directly from the city. 

The deadline to finalize levy language and submit it to the state is Jan. 31. 

Further, he said the association only became aware of the city’s request earlier this week through media reports indicating City Manager Kim Haws and Morgantown Fire Department Chief Eugene Deem had penned a letter to the Monongalia County Commission.  

The letter, dated Jan. 3, was read during Wednesday’s regular commission meeting. 

In it, the city asks the commission to “correct” the MFD’s omission from the excess fire levy, noting the MFD serves tens of thousands of county residents paying into the fire levy and yet the city “is the only part of the county that receives no funding from the excess levy funding fire departments.” 

Rinehart said the association had already begun formulating levy language representing a moderate increase to offset inflation and other cost increases since the 2020 renewal. 

“We were just taken aback that they said they now, all the sudden, want to be in, and again, being this late in the stage … Hopefully, we’ll get some information and figure out exactly what the city is looking for from this levy,” he said, adding, “We were talking about moderate increases … Now, with the city coming on board, it’s going to have to go up some more just to be able to cover, again, so the volunteers don’t lose what they’re getting now at least.” 

Morgantown Director of Communications Drew Bailey said the city reached out to both Rinehart and the commission president in late 2023 regarding this topic. At the time, Bailey explained, the city believed the levy would be before voters in November, not May.

“However, soon after, we found out that it would be a May item. We then made the formal request to make the deadline,” he said.

Rinehart confirmed he had brief contact with Deem in late November, but the MFD chief had no real information to provide at the time.

“We were waiting for a letter to be sent to us. Here we are, Jan. 10 and we have no letter,” Rinehart said.

The levy generates about $660,000 annually to be divided among the county’s 12 volunteer departments and its brush fire and hazardous materials teams. The volunteer fire association also receives a small portion of the proceeds. 

According to budget documents, the city anticipates collecting about $4.1 million in fire fees, which makes up a little more than half of the MFD’s $7.64 million budget for the current fiscal year. 

For its part, the commission said the city needs to sort it out with the volunteer departments. 

Commission President Sean Sikora was absent from Wednesday’s meeting but provided a written response to be read into the record. 

Sikora represents the county’s Central Magisterial District (Morgantown) and is the commission’s point person with the VFDs. 

As the body that ultimately approves or denies ballot access, Sikora said the commission has traditionally played a very specific role when it comes to excess levies.  

While the commissioners are willing to assist in an administrative or oversight capacity, they will not get directly involved in the development of a levy proposal. 

“To further clarify, we are responsible for due diligence regarding the applicant’s standing to be an applicant/responsible entity for an excess levy, but we don’t get involved in who is or isn’t included in any other manner,” Sikora wrote, adding he would be willing to broker conversation between the city and the VFDs.  

There are currently five excess levies on the books in Monongalia County, four of which — volunteer fire, libraries, public transit and parks/trails — will be up for renewal in the May 14 primary. The fifth, supporting EMS services, was passed by voters in November 2022. 

Excess levies must receive a 60% majority to pass. In both 2016 (75.02%) and 2020 (81.34%) the volunteer fire levy received the most support of any of the levies put before voters. 

With the deadline looming, Rinehart said he’s hopeful the volunteer firefighters can once again put something on the ballot the voters can get behind — city or no. 

“The biggest thing is the unknown of what the city is actually looking for from us. That’s the big thing. We just don’t know,” he said, later adding, “I’m not a fortune teller. I can’t read minds.” 

According to Bailey, the city is in the process of scheduling meetings as early as next week with the county volunteers to discuss the best way forward.

“The goal, of course, is to ensure that all residents in Mon County receive excellent fire services,” Bailey said.

Any levies passed in May would take effect July 1, 2025. 

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