Residents of a large swath of northern Beaufort County will still see a red fire truck if there’s a fire or other emergency next year, but the question is how quickly.
Where firefighters leave from and how quickly help arrives is among the things that will be determined when major changes planned for the fire service take place in 2018.
At the heart of the issue is a longstanding agreement between two departments that’s set to expire.
Currently, the Burton Fire District is paid to cover properties recently annexed by Beaufort and Port Royal.
As of Jan. 1, Beaufort and Port Royal will open a new station on Robert Smalls Parkway near Castle Rock Road and will stop paying Burton to cover those areas, a move that leaves the Burton department taking a budget hit of several hundred thousand dollars.
The new station would handle an area includes highly populated areas Port Royal has annexed, including Shadow Moss, a growing neighborhood with new homes under construction, and a new apartment complex with hundreds of units.
Beaufort-Port Royal Fire Chief Reece Bertholf has proposed that the closest unit to the emergency respond, regardless of the jurisdiction. Other stations would have backup responsibilities.
He crafted a new coverage area for the new station that incorporates areas previously covered by three Burton fire stations.
“At the end of the day, what the city and town are doing is we’re adding another fire truck to the mix,” Bertholf said. “We’re not taking anything away.”
Bertholf and Burton Fire Chief Harry Rountree met this month and plan to meet again, Rountree said.
But Burton hasn’t agreed to the new proposal, Rountree said. The department doesn’t need additional fire service in the area, its fire officials said.
“Unfortunately it’s a sad situation,” Burton Fire District chairman Gary Bright said. “I feel like we should have met on this a year and a half ago and tried to work out some more long-term plans.”
Beaufort and Port Royal officials believe there hasn’t been a chance to negotiate amid ongoing legal action.
An ongoing dispute
The agencies have long been in dispute about how Burton should be paid as each government continues to annex land in the Burton area.
The contract expiring at the end of the month was the result of a 2010 settlement between Burton, Port Royal and Beaufort. Under the agreement, the city and town each pay Burton an annual fee based on a formula using the number of annexed properties, Burton’s tax rate and assessed value of the property.
Burton sued the city and town for breach of contract over the deal, saying the governments used a formula based on the property’s taxable value and not assessed value, resulting in lower payments. A Beaufort County judge sided with Burton in 2016, ordering Beaufort and Port Royal to pay the difference it owed from 2011 through 2015 — $178,618 owed by Port Royal and $91,458 by Beaufort.
That ruling is being appealed.
Burton filed another lawsuit in November seeking additional fees for the past two years related to the disputed formula.
Burton residents pay taxes to the special fire district to serve Burton properties, Bright said. Without a contract to serve the properties annexed by the city and town, Burton firefighters won’t be able to respond to those properties next year, he said.
The most obvious potential problem area is the gated community of Picket Fences, a Port Royal neighborhood that sits just across Parris Island Gateway from Burton’s Shell Point station. The Burton chief said his firefighters won’t allow a house to burn down across the street.
“I wouldn’t expect that any fire department would allow that to happen,” he said this week. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have further conversations after the fact or have to deal with other scenarios.”
Burton fire officials said the changes next year could bring increased response times if fire trucks have to come from a longer distance.
Both departments currently receive calls from dispatch at the same time, Bertholf said.
Response times will go down if the closest unit responds after adding the new station and an additional truck, he said.
A long-term plan
If Burton doesn’t go along with the first-response plan, Beaufort and Port Royal’s added fire truck would be within reach of the city’s annexed property.
“The worst-case scenario for any of us would be a fire breaks out and nobody knows who to call,” said Beaufort County Councilman Brian Flewelling, whose district includes the area of the new station. “That’s never going to happen, At the end of the day, if there’s a question, Burton and Beaufort will both respond.”
Beaufort County Council approves the Burton Fire District budget each year but isn’t involved with the new station or lapsing agreement.
The recurring issue has rekindled talk of a past idea to consolidate fire service in the area.
Rountree said the departments were working on the possibility under past Beaufort chief Wendell Wilburn but that talks later broke down.
Some Beaufort County Council members are in the early stages of exploring how a unified department might work, Flewelling said.
“We all agree that in a perfect world, that’s where it will go,” he said. “The question is ‘How do we get there?’”