Burton commissioner: Safety another reason district sought to withhold service

Money motivated the Burton Fire District's attempt -- blocked by a judge last week -- to halt first-response service to certain areas of the city of Beaufort and town of Port Royal.

But at least one district leader said there is another concern about its decade-long arrangement with the municipalities -- leadership changes within the city's fire service have the district fretting over the safety of Burton's firefighters.

"After 10 years of work to make our departments as similar as possible, wholesale changes are made that we have to read about in the paper," Burton Fire District Commission chairman Gary Bright wrote in a statement to The Beaufort Gazette last week. "Yet, we are expected to send our personnel into the city for responses with all of the command and control officials retired as if all is OK. We have concerns about the safety of our personnel."

The Burton Fire District threatened to end first-response service to areas annexed into Port Royal after 1995 and into the city of Beaufort after 1999 on Sept. 1 unless the municipalities negotiated fees paid to the district for service in those areas. The municipalities argue those fees are determined -- and have already been paid -- according to a 1999 "consent orders" agreement.

Beaufort County Master-in-Equity Judge Marvin Dukes granted Beaufort and Port Royal a temporary restraining order last week to prevent Burton from dropping those services. The parties will meet again in court Sept. 28.

Burton cites safety concerns

So far, legal arguments between the parties have centered mostly around the 1999 agreement and money paid to the district by the municipalities.

But Bright's comments last week indicate the retirements of longtime Beaufort Fire Chief Wendell Wilburn and three other high-ranking members of the city's fire service earlier this year concerned Burton fire officials as they continued to answer calls inside Beaufort and Port Royal, which both are served primarily by the Beaufort Fire Department. Burton fire officials did not cite specific incidents in which they believed their firefighters' safety was compromised.

Beaufort fire officials deferred comment to city manager Scott Dadson.

"At the truck company level, that experience, that training, that education in fire response has not changed," Dadson said. "This is about contracts and agreements, not firefighters and firefighters' skills."

Port Royal Mayor Samuel Murrary echoed Dadson's thoughts about the city's fire service, which the town has contracted to use since 1991.

"Management of the fire department and management of fires is better than ever," Murray wrote in a statement to The Beaufort Gazette. "We are very proud of our firefighters and the way they've responded recently. Not only have they responded to calls inside the city and town, but they've also been very prompt to assist other firefighters across northern Beaufort County."

Terms of cooperation

The Burton Fire District was created in 1973 and is managed by a group of five county-appointed commissioners who have final say in department personnel issues, budget and purchases. The Beaufort County Council is responsible for approving the department's budget each year. The district employs 50 full-time firefighters and covers 80 square miles of northern Beaufort County.

The Beaufort Fire Department is a city department with a budget approved by the City Council.

All area departments have mutual aid agreements, by which they assist other departments by responding to calls as needed.

In 1999, Burton fire officials entered an agreement with Beaufort and Port Royal that obligated Burton to provide first-response services to certain areas that had been annexed from the district's territory into the municipalities. When alerted by dispatch of an incident in those areas, both departments send fire trucks and personnel.

The agreement applies to for all major and minor structure-fire calls, vehicle accidents and medical calls, according to the document.

The consent orders agreement specifically obligated the district to provide first-response service to some annexed areas, and no one disputes that obligation. But language regarding service to areas annexed into Port Royal after 1995 and into Beaufort after 1999 is murkier.

Those areas include Picket Fences, Shadow Moss, Ashton Point Apartments, the Walmart on Robert Smalls Parkway and several other businesses and neighborhoods.

"This is a situation caused by annexation, the kind of annexation where you have people living next door to one another, one's in Beaufort and the other's in Burton," Bright said.

Honoring agreements

A federal loan the Burton Fire District took out in 1983 requires the municipalities to compensate the district for tax revenue it lost to any annexations from the time the loan was accepted.That loan expires in 2025.

The district's agreements with Beaufort and Port Royal is up next July, at the end of this fiscal year, and presumably must be re-negotiated.

Representatives of the fire district contend they have tried unsuccessfully for nearly two years to get Beaufort and Port Royal to the bargaining table. Frustrated, the district this past June asked the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas to step in and require that the parties negotiate a new agreement, according to court documents.

"The (agreement) ends next year so we're trying to be proactive because once it expires, it could take a year or two to make a new one," Bright said. "We don't want to leave citizens, particularly their citizens, exposed to any unnecessary risks. It's frustrating. We've bent over backwards to help the city and Port Royal."

Nonetheless, attempts to negotiate a new agreement have been complicated by different interpretations of current ones.

The fire district has provided first-response service to the areas in dispute for nearly a decade, but its leaders contend it has done so voluntarily, not out of obligation.

However, Port Royal and Beaufort say its payments to the district since 1999 are compensation for first-response services for all of the annexed areas. Beaufort pays $15,000 a year and Port Royal paid $77,571 last year to the fire district to service those areas. The Burton Fire District's budget for the current fiscal year is $3.4 million, according to Bright.

"It's very expensive to make a run," Bright said. "If we're going to continue to respond to incidents on city property then the Burton Fire District should be reimbursed or paid for that. It's not about making cuts. We just don't want to spend any money that we don't have to spend."

Burton fire officials estimate that it costs $1,150 each time their firefighters run a call in the city.

"We did some looking and found that we were going to the city three times as often as they were coming to us," Bright said Wednesday. "The Burton taxpayers aren't paying their taxes so we can provide services to the city on their dime."

The district's claims about funding problems seem odd given that both municipalities have paid the amount agreed upon in the consent orders, said Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling.

"I don't know their budget or their costs, but that claim seems a little arbitrary or untimely, or timely, depending on how you look at it," Keyserling said. "They're being paid and all of a sudden, they're suing us saying they need more money."

Both Keyserling and Port Royal town manager Van Willis said they believe Burton should honor the terms of the consent orders agreements.

"We intend to negotiate with the Burton Fire District to extend that agreement beyond July 2010," Willis said. "In the meantime, we have a contract and a service that our residents have paid for that should still be provided."