A Scott Depot-based company is requesting a Putnam Circuit Court judge rule that the county’s annual fire service fees are unreasonable and must be reformulated.
In a lawsuit filed Monday against the Putnam County Fire Service Board and the county commission, Foster Supply said an ordinance amendment the commission adopted about two years ago imposes fire fees on commercial buildings that are about 13 times the average amount imposed on residential buildings. The fire fees are collected from residents and businesses to support fire departments throughout the county.
The company argues the amendment applies an “arbitrary square footage formula to ‘buildings’ within the county without regard to the use, construction techniques, fire risk, location, and accessibility of fire services” and also “discriminates between residential and commercial ‘buildings’ without any stated rational purpose for so doing.”
Foster Supply argues the fee formula violates state law, which says county commissions can adopt ordinances to set “reasonable fire service rates.” It states it has exhausted its administrative remedies to challenge the fee formula.
Billy Whittington, administrative assistant for the county fire board office, said Foster Supply appealed its fee to the fire board in March of 2013, but the board denied the appeal. She said the county commission upheld the board’s decision this January.
Geoff Foster, operations manager of Foster Supply, according to the company website, is the Republican candidate for the 15th state House district, which includes Winfield, Hurricane, Teays Valley and Scott Depot residents. The company is a construction materials supplier that, according to its website, has another West Virginia branch in Mount Clare and two more in Kentucky.
The ordinance amendment in question upped the county’s fire fee rates by 50 percent, the first increase in more than two decades. The move was backed by county fire departments, that failed to get a 100 percent increase in 2011.
But Whittington said the differing fee setups for residential and commercial buildings dates back before the amendment to when the fire fee was established in 1986.
Owners of what the ordinance deems residential buildings up 2,500 square feet pay $37.50 annually, and owners of larger residential structures pay $45.
Owners of commercial buildings — which include apartment buildings, hotels, motels and other buildings intended mostly for transient lodging — pay $75 for structures up to 2,500 square feet.
But instead of a single rate for all structures larger than that, they pay $75 more for each 1,250 extra square feet until 7,500 square feet, upon which they pay $75 more per each 2,500 extra square feet up to 20,000. The max fee, for 20,000 square feet and larger, is $1,125 per year.
Employees at Foster Supply on Thursday referred questions to the company president, Ron Foster, who was not available. Attorney Harvey Peyton, who is representing the company, said that because the formula only takes into account square footage, Foster Supply is paying a large fee for a warehouse that has a concrete floor and stores pre-cast concrete objects and is virtually fireproof.
Under the current fee structure, the owner of a home the same size of the warehouse pays far less.
Whittington said commercial buildings have always more square footage categories. She said she didn’t know why the rates were originally set up this way.
County Commissioner Steve Andes, who is also on the fire board, said he also didn’t know why the fee was designed to charge residential and commercial buildings at different rates.
“Nobody had any problems with it up until now,” he said.
Reach Ryan Quinn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1254.