ISO issue raises fairness questions in Bluffton

cconley@islandpacket.comJanuary 13, 2013 

If your neighbor's house was on fire, you'd probably try to help put it out.

But would you pay higher taxes to have 24 new firefighters do it?

That's among the questions raised recently when Bluffton Township Fire District officials announced plans to add firefighters and firehouses in greater Bluffton. The plan would cost $555,000 through June 30 and $1.3 million a year thereafter.

The plan would avert a steep home insurance rate hike for about 500 homeowners in Palmetto Bluff and Colleton River Plantation. Taxes would probably increase on everyone in greater Bluffton to pay for it, although it's not clear by how much.

Chief Barry Turner says the expansion is driven by home insurance premiums for some in the two gated communities rather than by fire safety issues.

"Fire protection is not the issue," Turner said. "The issue is insurance rates." He emphasized that the plan was created at Beaufort County Council's request.

Questions also have arisen about what's fair for Colleton River and Palmetto Bluff residents, whose insurance risk ratings are now higher than the rest of greater Bluffton.

"There is a fairness issue that has to come into play," said Rob Norton, head of the Colleton River Property Owners Association.

The proposal comes before County Council for an initial review today.

WHAT THE ISO RATINGS MEAN

Insurance Services Office inspectors in late 2011 gave large swaths of both gated communities a class 10 rating -- the worst score possible -- downgrading the score from a class 3. The increase occurred because inspectors found most of both developments were more than five miles from a fire station, a distance that brings an automatic 10 rating.

The ratings change surprised the fire district, which keeps reserve fire trucks in both communities -- but no personnel -- solely to achieve the lower rating.

In their latest review, ISO inspectors determined those "unmanned stations" no longer qualified as firehouses.

ISO ratings are used by many insurance providers to gauge risk. After the ratings downgrade, many homeowners' insurance premiums went up, some by more than $10,000 a year.

THE PLAN

The fire district has a two-pronged approach to reduce that risk ratings and presented it last week after months of review.

Starting in April, the district would assign two firefighters drawn from existing staff to cover three shifts at the each of the temporary stations. The 12 firefighters would provide 24-hour coverage until June 30.

The ISO said in a recent letter that adding staff to the existing "unmanned stations" would bring the risk ratings down to a class 3.

Turner also would begin hiring the 24 new firefighters in the spring so they can be trained and begin work at July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

The district needs the new hires to ensure four firefighters are working on all three shifts at both of the temporary stations. Four firefighters are needed in emergencies because the department requires two firefighters to remain outside if two enter a structure.

The total cost through June 30 is about $554,000. The district wants to tap reserves to cover that cost.

If the plan is approved, the district would need about $1.3 million more a year to pay for the 24 hires.

The district faces an estimated $500,000 shortfall if the plan is approved.

Both gated communities have offered room and board to the temporary station firefighters since those stations are little more than garages.

Negotiations are under way for the construction of permanent firehouses.

WHAT'S FAIR?

Norton, of Colleton River, says residents there have paid their fair share over the past decade. Citing county tax records, he says they have paid about $36 million in property taxes, including $4.3 million in fire taxes.

"In the past, we've never had concerns about (fire) service," he said. "But there is a perception of unevenness in terms of how the district deals with the more remote locations."

The issue goes well beyond the two gated communities, however, and raise a number of other questions.

Is it fair for the many to pay higher taxes to reduce insurance costs for the few?

Would that then set a precedent that requires county action for other fire districts, including the Sheldon Fire District, which has a small number of homes with class 10 ratings?

"You are hitting on a real moral part of the issue," Councilman Jerry Stewart said when asked those questions. "That is one (thing) we always have to wrestle with. I think anyone can argue either side of that ... and you are going have strong points for either case."

But there are also practical concerns -- including possible County Council resistance to tax increases -- that threaten the proposal.

Newly-elected Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch said last week that she won't support a tax increase.

"If I thought we had an issue with safety, I would reconsider my view, but I don't see any realistic issue with safety whatsoever," she said. "This is more an issue of insurance premiums justifying unreasonable requirements."

Meanwhile, other efforts are under way to solve the insurance rate dilemma. County administrator Gary Kubic wants to meet with the ISO to present statistics showing the neighborhoods have a relatively low fire risk.

That meeting notwithstanding, Stewart said the fire district plan is nowhere near approval.

"There is a long way yet to go on this," he said.

Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.

Related content:

Bluffton Fire District: Tax hike may be needed to fund new firefighters, Jan. 8, 2013

Insurance rate hike could lead to more firefighters, Nov. 18, 2012

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