A proposal to open temporary fire stations in two Bluffton-area gated communities cleared a key procedural hurdle Monday without opposition.
The Bluffton Township Fire District has proposed authorizing overtime and hiring 24 new firefighters in response to insurance risk-ratings downgrades for parts of Colleton River Plantation and Palmetto Bluff. The downgrades have exposed hundreds of homeowners to higher home insurance premiums.
Starting in April, the district would assign two firefighters from existing staff to cover three shifts at the each of the temporary stations. The 12 firefighters would provide 24-hour coverage until June 30. County Council approved the plan Monday, with a final vote planned next month.
Fire Chief Barry Turner would begin hiring 24 new firefighters later in the spring so they can be trained and begin work July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. The temporary stations would then have a full four-person crew for 24-hour coverage.
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The neighborhoods have offered to provide room and board for the firefighters. Discussions have occurred on building permanent stations in each gated community. Currently, the district stores a reserve fire truck but no firefighters in each community.
Overtime for existing firefighters and the cost of hiring the 24 new firefighters through June 30 is estimated at $554,000, which would come from district reserves. The new hires would cost about $1.3 million a year thereafter, requiring a tax increase for district property owners.
Councilman Steve Baer, who was previously skeptical of the plan, indicated Monday he's more receptive.
"It's not very much money," Baer said, noting that on a $250,000 home the tax hit would be less than $1 a month.
Councilman Jerry Stewart, whose subcommittee has vetted the plan for weeks, argued that allowing the insurance rates to drop would spur growth in the high-end developments.
Eventually, he and Baer argued, the improved service would more than pay for itself.
A final vote authorizing the district to spend the $554,000 this fiscal year is tentatively scheduled for early February.
Stewart warned, however, that a final vote could be put off until more is known about budget implications of the ongoing property reassessment.