The Town of Hilton Head Island should reject a $300,000 port-security grant from the U.S. Department of Public Safety to purchase a fire-rescue boat, a panel agreed Monday.
The town's Public Safety Committee chairman, Bill Harkins, said the public believes the Fire & Rescue Division is "overstaffed, overbuilt and over-capitalized."
The committee voted unanimously to recommend that the Town Council pass on the grant.
"Most of the commentary from the public is perception that Fire & Rescue has become such a large part of the budget and does not need another 'toy,' " said committee member and boater Lee Edwards. "I'm still on the fence whether there is real demand for it."
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The Fire & Rescue Division accounts for about 41 percent of the town's $32.7 million operating budget, with about 150 employees, seven fire stations and a training facility for an island with a permanent-resident population of 37,000 and an estimated 2 million visitors a year.
Although the grant does not require matching dollars, it would cost the town about $46,000 initially to train and certify existing staff and pay for annual maintenance, fuel, insurance and storage, Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas said. No additional staff would be hired, he said.
Committee members indicated Oct. 25 that the town should decline the boat unless the county shared the cost, the department could find the money in its current budget or fees for emergency medical transport would offset expenses.
Lucas said costs associated with the boat could be paid for within the current budget.
"Grant funding is very likely for covering the training and overtime cost associated with training," Lucas said. "Any operating costs that cannot be alternatively funded will be absorbed in the existing Fire & Rescue operating budget. This boat will be budget neutral."
A cost-sharing agreement with Beaufort County "would lead to less overall control and not provide an adequate return on the investment," he added.
Sheriff P.J. Tanner told the committee Oct. 25 he and other county officials were willing to discuss cost-sharing but the boat must be available throughout the county.
Lucas warned that the town might be liable and its environment harmed if it can't respond to a fire, rescue, emergency care or hazardous-material spills on the 21 square miles of tidal waters within town limits.
"I hate to give up a great opportunity, but at the same time, I don't want to take on something that, long-term, will be an ongoing cost to the town" in the absence of strong demand, committee member Kim Likins said.
CRIME RATES DROP
In other business, the committee reviewed third-quarter crime statistics provided by the Sheriff's Office:
Town staff also suggested that the town request the S.C. Department of Transportation increase the speed limit on the Charles E. Fraser Bridge from 40 mph to 45 mph. The limit on Palmetto Bay Road from the Audubon Newhall Preserve to Island Crossings Shopping Center could increase from 35 mph to 40 mph, as well, according to the staff.
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.