Tax hike, $6M in borrowing planned for Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District work

cconley@ilsandpacket.comFebruary 2, 2013 

The Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District plans to borrow $6 million to buy two new firetrucks and build a headquarters on Lady's Island Drive.

The district, which covers 144 square miles in northern Beaufort County, also would pay off two high-interest bank loans totaling about $1.14 million.

The plan likely would lower home-insurance rates for Cat Island property owners, but also would mean higher taxes for all district residents.

The district also would employ a funding method it hasn't used in about 20 years, issuing bonds.

Fire Chief Bruce Kline said the proposed 12,000-square-foot station at 146 Lady's Island Drive would have three equipment bays, sleeping quarters and enough office space for all command staff. It also would have a day room and fitness gym.

The new space would replace the 8,000-square-foot headquarters on Sea Island Parkway near the Beaufort County Airport, built about 30 years ago.

Although it would be larger with more amenities, the new station would have vinyl floors and Formica countertops to save on expenses, Kline said.

"It's a basic facility that has extremely wearable and workable surfaces and construction," he said. "There is some future built into the building in regard to the growth of the district and personnel."

Kline said there are no plans to hire new staff for the 66-person department.

TAPPING THE BOND MARKET

For the first time since the early 1990s, the district plans to sell bonds on the open market rather than seek a bank loan to pay for the improvements.

The district has hired Gary Pope Jr. of the Pope Zeigler law firm to manage the process. He says the district probably will go to one or more of the major ratings agencies, such as Moody's or Standard & Poor's, to obtain the district's bond rating. Once the rating is established, the district can prepare to sell the bonds.

Pope declined to speculate what the bonds' interest rate might be but said they likely would carry a 30-year term and raise $3.4 million for the fire station and $1.1 million to pay off old debt. Separate bonds for the two new pumper trucks and related equipment, which would cost about $1.1 million total, would have a 15-year term.

Pope expects the bonds' interest rates, which aren't determined until the bonds are sold, to be lower than a bank loan.

"By going to the public markets ... you are appealing to the broadest possible base of capital. When you have more capital competing, you have the highest likelihood of achieving the lowest interest rate," he said.

Kline believes the district's debt millage will increase if the borrowing is approved. Based on current projections, the owner of a home valued at $250,000 would owe about $10 more a year in taxes.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Under state law, Lady's Island-St. Helena is a special purpose district that answers to a five-member Board of Fire Control appointed by the governor. Beaufort County Council's only oversight is through setting the district's tax rates.

Council has already held one of three votes required to authorize the bond sale. A public hearing and final vote will be Feb. 25 at the earliest. If approved then, the bond sale could occur in late April, Pope says.

Kline says he'll sign a design-build construction contract with Frazier Construction as soon as the money is available. He's optimistic construction can begin this spring.

Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.

Related content:

Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District names firefighter of the year, Dec. 20, 2012

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