For now, budgets remain tight but manageable for Beaufort County fire districts

info@islandpacket.comJuly 4, 2012 

Beaufort County fire district budgets will increase some this fiscal year to cover a cost-of-living raise for personnel and an expected increase in operating costs.

But that's about all.

Beaufort County Council approved a 2 percent to 4 percent increase in funding June 11 for each of its six districts, but the increase is expected to be swallowed by higher insurance, operational and payroll costs.

Bluffton, Burton, Sheldon, Lady's Island, Daufuskie Island and St. Helena Island have special fire districts funded through Beaufort County. Beaufort and Hilton Head Island fund their own departments.

County districts have been coping with the flagging economy and a coinciding decline in government revenue for about five years. The districts requested only modest increases this year.

"The county has been giving us great guidance on what we can anticipate," said Deputy Fire Chief John Thompson of the Bluffton Township Fire District. That guidance, he said, helped the Bluffton district build a reserve fund over five years to pay for a $2.2 million station on the corner of Burnt Church and Ulmer roads. The district also is adding $500,000 in emergency-response services at its Moss Creek station. County Council approved the projects this year, primarily because the district didn't ask for extra money from the general fund or a tax increase to pay for them, Thompson said.

The Burton Fire District took a similar approach by paying for a new $500,000 water-pumping truck using reserves and impact fees, Chief Harry Rountree said.

The new vehicle will replace one the district has had since 1991, which was "wearing us out in maintenance costs and down time for repairs," Rountree said.

"You try to keep (equipment) in service and get every penny you can from it," he said. "The bills aren't going down."

Most fire chiefs said they have held the line on budgets and staff size for about as long as they can.

Thompson said the Bluffton district has 87 firefighters -- exactly enough personnel to staff each of its trucks and still meet national standards.

"That's the lowest we can go," he said, adding that losing personnel could compromise fire service and medical support.

The base salary of about $28,000 a year for a firefighter working in one of Beaufort County's districts is about $2,000 less than state and regional averages, according to an April fire district report to County Council.

Despite the lower average salary, the fire districts said their firefighters haven't been moving to work in other areas during the downturn. Thompson said the firefighters in the county are dedicated to the area, and many other districts in the state that are paying higher salaries don't have the money to hire more people.

The Beaufort County districts do provide "longevity raises." Some districts, such as Bluffton, give a 1.67 percent raise for each year a firefighter works there, while others, such as Burton, give a 5 percent raise every three years.

Looking ahead, some fire chiefs are concerned about how the property-tax reassessment in 2014 will affect their budgets.

Beaufort County assessor Ed Hughes has said the county could lose $4 million in revenue, and next year's budget could reflect that as the county prepares for the dip.

"The decrease in revenue means my department could be looking at losing $900,000," Thompson said. "I'm worried about next year."

Follow Anne Christnovich on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_CrimeNOB.

Related content:

Bluffton Fire department to build new station, March 12, 2012

At annual retreat, county prepares for possible $4-million revenue dip, Feb. 16, 2012

Fire district planning to expand Moss Creek station, add EMS team, May 22, 2012

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