Representatives of the Burton Fire District said Wednesday that 1999 agreements with the city of Beaufort and town of Port Royal do not require it to provide first-response service to certain areas annexed into the municipalities during the past decade.
And since the district can no longer afford to provide that service, one of its lawyers contends, it will discontinue it Sept. 1.
The areas affected include Picket Fences, Shadow Moss, Ashton Point Apartments, the Walmart on Robert Smalls Parkway and several other businesses and neighborhoods.
“It costs the district money every time we have to respond — taxpayer money,” said Fred Kuhn, a lawyer representing the Burton Fire District. “We can’t afford to keep doing it.”
Beaufort and Port Royal on Wednesday filed temporary restraining orders to prevent the district from dropping service until the parties schedule a full hearing on the matter, said William Harvey, a lawyer representing Beaufort.
Hearings on the restraining orders were scheduled for noon today in Beaufort County Court before Judge Marvin Dukes.The dispute revolves around language in 1999 legal documents that attempted to tackle issues created by annexation.
In 1983, the Burton Fire District received a federal loan to purchase equipment and land and build a fire station. Terms of the loan require municipalities that annex land within the Burton Fire District before the debt is retired to pay the district a portion of the property tax revenue it receives from those areas, Kuhn said.
In 1999, the district reached agreements with Beaufort and Port Royal — through legal documents called “consent orders of settlements” — on a payment formula for first-response service delivered by the district to several areas that had recently been incorporated by both municipalities.
Those areas were listed in a separate document — an “automatic aid agreement” — and will continue to receive service from the district.There is disagreement, however, about areas later annexed into Beaufort and Port Royal.
The Burton Fire District contends its agreements require Beaufort and Port Royal to compensate it for tax revenue it lost to the annexations but that the district is not required to provide first-response service to areas within the district annexed into Port Royal after 1995 or into Beaufort after 1999. It has voluntarily done so for the past 10 years out of concern for citizens’ safety, Kuhn said.
But Port Royal and Beaufort say its payments to the district since 1999 are compensation for first-response services for all of the annexed areas. The district’s consent order agreement with the municipalities expires in July 2010, and the district this past June asked the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas to require that the parties negotiate a new agreement, according to court documents.
City manager Scott Dadson and Mayor Billy Keyserling said Beaufort is not prepared to take over services by Sept. 1. It doesn’t have enough personnel or a fire station close enough to those areas to provide adequate public safety.
In a letter to Burton Fire Commission chairman Gary Bright, Keyserling said he believed “a threat to suspend fire services to residents, no matter where they live, is not the proper way to resolve differences over governance.”
Harvey echoed Keyserling, calling the threat to discontinue services “horribly irresponsible when we’re talking about extra time to respond to a fire where lives may be in danger.”
But Kuhn said the district has been asking the city and town to either pay them for providing services or plan to expand their own fire operations for more than two years.
“This is a result of Beaufort and Port Royal annexing areas that they’re not prepared to provide services to,” Kuhn said.