Doug Mongold, president of the state Fireman’s Association, said West Virginia had 12,000 volunteer firefighters in 2000, a number that has since dwindled to 10,000.
They serve in 424 volunteer fire departments across the state.
Keeping volunteer fire departments in good working order is important to West Virginians. Their safety and property depends on it. The state does have a stake in helping VFDs solve their problems.
But the state would have to find the right balance between firefighters’ interests and taxpayers’ interests.
State Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis suggests the state address recruitment problems by providing pensions to volunteers when they retire.
He wants legislators to raise the current 1.55 percent surcharge on homeowners’ insurance policies to 2 percent to fund pensions for volunteer firefighters. Those who support this idea think the revenue source would support $222-a-month pensions for volunteer firefighters at age 60.
The timing could not be worse. West Virginia legislators perfected the unfunded pension liability game, and the state’s liabilities stood at nearly $5 billion as of July 1 — before the stock market nosedived.
The state’s taxpayers simply cannot take on any more open-ended obligations.
How much money do the departments get from the current surcharge? How much money would the proposed tax increase cost insurance policyholders?
West Virginians do value volunteer firefighters, but the days of guessing about pension costs are long gone in West Virginia.