Bluffton Township Fire District's plan to improve insurance ratings affecting Colleton River Plantation and Palmetto Bluff received final approval Monday by the Beaufort County Council.
The district has proposed authorizing overtime and hiring 24 new firefighters in response to the Insurance Services Office downgrades, which have exposed hundreds of property owners inside the gated communities to higher home insurance premiums.
Despite council's OK, the proposal is still not a done deal.
Fire Chief Barry Turner said Monday he'll delay the plan until he's certain funding for the new hires will be available next year. That means waiting until more details are available for the county's ongoing property-value reassessment. That information is expected around April 1.
"If we are unable to maintain next year these new firefighters, this plan is (not worth starting)," he said.
Council unanimously approved, with one abstention, the district's request to raise its budget by $554,000 through June 30 to staff the temporary stations. That figure includes overtime for existing firefighters and costs associated with hiring and training the 24 new firefighters so they could start July 1.
The new hires, which are needed to fully staff the stations without overtime, would cost the district about $1.3 million a year thereafter.
Councilman Tabor Vaux, who was sworn in Feb. 4 after winning a special election for a Bluffton-area seat, abstained because his law firm was representing the fire district.
Based on current projections, the owner of a $250,000 home inside the Bluffton district would owe about $10 more in property taxes next year because of the plan.
The neighborhoods have offered to provide room and board for the firefighters. Discussions have occurred on building permanent stations in both gated communities. Currently, the district stores a reserve fire truck but no firefighters in each of the communities.
The district has confirmed that the ISO ratings in affected parts of both neighborhoods would return to Class 3 if the new stations open. Currently, these areas have a Class 10 rating, which is the worst.
In addition to lower risk ratings, the neighborhoods would experience faster emergency-response times with the new stations, Turner said.
Despite uncertainty about the plan, he believes the temporary stations can still be operational as scheduled in late April.
"We're ready to go," Turner said.