by Kate Shunney
After answering multiple questions about how local residents might get billed for fire service under a proposed ordinance, Morgan County Commissioners said last Wednesday they would take time to write out the specifics before voting on the ordinance document.
The questions and discussion came during a February 16 public hearing on the Draft Ordinance Authorizing Volunteer Fire Companies and Paid Fire Companies to Charge Fees.
Commissioner Sean Forney, who led the effort to bring the ordinance to vote, said last week that he was “looking at opportunities to give fire companies the authority to bill for services they provide”.
Forney, who is an insurance professional, has said that most common homeowner’s insurance policies already cover fire service response as a “covered peril.” That coverage is generally up to $500 for a residence and up to $1,500 for a commercial policy, Forney said.
He was approached by a citizen who asked why Morgan County’s four volunteer fire companies aren’t capturing those insurance dollars after responding to incidents.
Forney said he knows some homeowners who have paid off their homes don’t carry full insurance coverage, and it’s not his intention that fire companies hit them with a bill if they have a fire.
Commissioner Joel Tuttle pointed out that in the proposed county ordinance doesn’t say insurance companies would be billed for fire response. Instead, the one-page ordinance says fire departments are authorized to “directly bill the property owner or other person responsible of liable for payment of such services”.
Tuttle said some people might be worried they would be on the hook for a fire company bill, not their insurance company.
Forney said a bill would have to be sent to property owners, but could also be submitted to insurance companies. If a property owner doesn’t have insurance, they could then ask to have that bill exonerated, or wiped out.
“My only concern is if the fire company decides not to exonerate people’s bills,” said Forney.
One county resident asked if the billing would be just for structure fires, or any fire, like a brush fire.
Forney said a brush fire wouldn’t be a “covered peril” under a homeowner’s policy unless it affected an insured structure.
“The fire company could bill it, but insurance wouldn’t cover it?” the man asked.
Commissioners said yes, the ordinance would allow that. Under the proposed rules, fire companies could send out a bill of up to $1,500 per incident. Exceptions would be extended search and rescue response or hazardous materials incidents.
Forney said he thought it would be better if all fire companies used a standardized form to take homeowner information and itemize their bills.
Commissioner Bill Clark said he had worries that some residents would automatically pay the fire bill rather than waiting for their insurance to cover it.
“They’re not going to feel good about letting a bill go,” said Clark.
Another county resident said she had asked her insurance carrier what their coverage would be for an auto incident, which they said would cap at $250. She asked if her family would be on the hook for a fire company bill if she were in a house fire and didn’t survive.
Forney said in his discussions with county fire companies, one main concern surfaced.
“The only hesitancy from fire departments is they don’t want to bill people without insurance,” he said.
A resident said she knows finances are tight for volunteer fire companies, but she wondered why the county was considering the billing ordinance now.
Forney said COVID restrictions cut off a lot of fire company fundraising events and efforts over the last two years, but fire company expenses are the same or rising.
“The last thing I want to do is be talking about raising the Fire Fee,” he said.
Capturing insurance coverage could be one way to fund fire service without costing residents extra, he said.
One gentleman said he thought insurance companies would raise premiums if they had to pay out a bill for fire response.
“If there’s a house fire and they’re paying $250,000 to rebuild your house, they’re not worried about a $500 fire bill,” said Forney. He said companies will gladly pay that bill in the case that volunteer firefighters put out a flue or other fire and save an entire home.
Forney said fire companies proposed putting any funds from insurance billing into a pot that the four county departments would split evenly.
Patrick McBee thanked commissioners for explaining the ordinance in better detail, and urged them to publicize their explanations about it. McBee, who served as a volunteer firefighter, said the county has needed to address the need for paid firefighters for decades.
“We would be hard-pressed to have paid fire service without raising the Fire Fee,” said Commissioner Tuttle. In that case, Tuttle said the public response would be substantial.
“This room wouldn’t be empty,” he said.
In response to questions from The Morgan Messenger, commissioners said they would consider writing out the specifics of a billing procedure for the public to read and review before county officials vote on the ordinance.
The ordinance can be read on the County Commission website at http://morgancountywv.gov.