ROMNEY — An ordinance imposing a $2.50 monthly user fee to support the Romney Volunteer Fire Company was rejected by the Romney Town Council at its meeting Monday night.
Instead, the council will place the question before the voters in the next municipal election, asking them to decide if town residents should pay a fire fee.
The council approved drafting of a fire fee ordinance at their June meeting, with Councilor John Duncan pointing out the financial loss that the county’s volunteer fire companies have been struggling with due to the curtailing of fund-raising activities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
When the newly drafted ordinance was presented to the council Monday night, it initially passed, with council members Gary Smith, John Duncan, Duncan Hott and Bill Taylor voting in favor and Derek Shreve and Paula O’Brien dissenting.
Following the vote, Mayor Beverly Keadle suggested there were things that needed to be brought to the council’s attention, pointing out that normally fire departments supported by a town were under the town’s authority, like the police department.
She noted positive features of the ordinance, including its restriction of the use of fee revenue to the “continuance, maintenance, or improvement of fire protection within the Town of Romney” and the requirement for detailed financial records showing how the money is spent.
However, she thought the proposal should be submitted to the voters, letting them make the decision.
Keadle said records show that for the past 3 years just 10 to 13 percent of the calls taken by the fire company were within the town limits. Since the fee the council was considering could be imposed only within the town limits, she felt town residents should be able to decide whether to pay it.
She also expected negative reactions to adding the fee to utility bills, noting that people were already not happy with water and sewer rates. “To them, this is just another charge,” she pointed out.
Councilman Duncan Hott suggested that the $5 streets and sidewalks fee already collected on utility bills could be split between the fire company and the streets and sidewalks fund, so support for the fire company did not place an added burden on taxpayers.
Keadle pointed out that repairing potholes in the streets is also a high priority, noting that the meeting had begun with a citizen’s complaint about potholes on Birch Lane.
After the discussion, the council unanimously agreed to rescind their earlier vote in support of the ordinance and to hold a new vote. This time the ordinance was voted down by a vote of 5-1, with John Duncan casting the only vote for it.
It was agreed to ask the voters to vote on paying a fire fee in the next municipal election.
In other business, the council passed a revised Historic Landmarks Commission ordinance on its 3rd and final reading. The commission, consisting of 5 unpaid members appointed by the mayor, acts in an advisory capacity, identifying historic sites and buildings and promoting their preservation.
Mayor Keadle noted that 2nd letters have been sent to property owners with vacant houses, and bills will be going out after July 21.
She also announced Thrasher Group representatives should be seen in town over the next few weeks, beginning plans for the High Street sidewalk project, for which the Division of Highways should be supplying ADA compliant ramps for street corners.
USDA grants of “something around $75,000” were approved for police equipment and training, and equipment including a pickup and a dump truck for public works and the city maintenance department.
The council discussed the purchase of AMI Radio Read Water Meters to replace the “antiquated” equipment in use in the town water department, noting a probable cost of around $445,000. The mayor noted that the funds the town receives from the American Rescue Plan should come close to paying the full cost, and these funds can only be used for water, sewer or broadband.
The town will continue its participation in the Cacapon Institute’s BMP (Best Management Practices) Tree Grant Program, as it has been doing for several years, making a variety of trees available for planting on private property. Keadle announced they had upped the number of trees to 4.
The council approved a Community Environmental Management Grant from the Cacapon Institute that should supply them with 35 street trees with trunks of 2 inches diameter or more to replace trees the town has had to take down in the past few years and has not replaced.
The council approved the hiring of Kaylie B. Ganoe as a patrolman in the police department, the appointment of Marion Mich to the Romney Housing Authority Commission, and the appointment of Carl Laitenberger to the Board of Zoning Appeals.
Pay increases were approved for town employees, to take effect at the end of July. o