BLUFFTON

Bluffton Fire District: Tax hike may be needed to fund new firefighters

cconley@islandpacket.comJanuary 8, 2013 

A Bluffton Township Fire District fire truck sits Tuesday in the district's unmanned Station 37 in Palmetto Bluff.

JAY KARR, STAFF PHOTO

The 24 new firefighters the Bluffton Township Fire District wants to hire to protect Colleton River Plantation and Palmetto Bluff could mean a tax increase for everyone in greater Bluffton -- even those outside the two gated communities.

The district's proposal aims to avert home-insurance rate hikes for some property owners in the two communities.

Chief Barry Turner on Monday told the Beaufort County Council's Governmental Committee that he wants the new firefighters on the job by July 1. They would staff the temporary stations in each of the neighborhoods.

To cover three shifts 24 hours a day, 12 firefighters would be needed at each station.

The new hires are expected to cost about $1.3 million a year in salary and benefits.

In the meantime, Turner wants to place two firefighters in those stations in April by paying overtime to existing staff. Under district policy, those firefighters would not be able to enter burning houses until a total of four firefighters were on the scene.

The fire district projects the overtime cost will be $220,000 through June 30, when the fiscal year ends.

Hiring and training 24 new firefighters is projected to cost $335,000 during the same period.

The district wants county council to amend the district's budget to tap reserve funds to pay the combined $555,000 through June 30.

Even if council approves the plan, a tax increase for those living in greater Bluffton is likely, according to a report district officials presented to the committee Monday.

Details on the increase won't be available until the plan -- and the county's property-tax reassessment that takes effect next year -- are completed.

WHY NOW?

The district's plan responds to an unexpected Insurance Services Office risk-ratings downgrade issued for parts of both neighborhoods last year. As a result, many homeowners' insurance premiums rose. Rates could rise for residents of other neighborhoods, too, when their current policies expire.

Turner stressed Monday -- as he has for months -- that the downgrade was a technical decision by the ISO unrelated to response times or the department's capabilities.

The ISO said in a recent letter that adding two firefighter to each of the temporary stations would be enough to lower risk ratings. Those stations currently consist of a garage with a firetruck, but no employees. Previously, the ISO considered these "unmanned stations" when determining homes' proximity to a fire station.

Although the committee forwarded the plan to the full council, much is still uncertain about it.

For example, county officials are wary of approving any new hires -- and the higher costs that come with them -- until more is known about reassessment, which effects tax bill that will go out in November.

District officials said they can't begin recruiting new firefighters until funding is guaranteed in the future.

"If we won't know until April 1 or some time after that whether we can fund the outgoing years, we don't think we can start this this year," Bluffton Fire District Commission chairman Terry Reynolds said Monday.

Councilman Jerry Stewart, the committee chairman, expects the council will allow the fire district to tap its reserves so that the temporary stations can be manned later this year.

He wasn't sure when the lingering reassessment issues will be cleared up, however.

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