Wednesday, April 17, 2013
The Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District is asking the public’s approval to lift the cap on the district’s millage rate. A discussion on the move is set for 6 p.m. on April 29 at Fire Station 1, located at 3641 Highway 17 Business.
By law, the district may not spend beyond its current 10-mill allocation set in 1992 long before rescue service became part of the offerings of the district.
However, the board says that an increasing number of calls, a merging of emergency medical services with fire fighting, plans to build and staff a fourth fire station and a stagnant or even negative growth in terms of housing values has forced the district officials to take a long, hard look at funding.
“This is not something we want to do, this is something we have to do,” said Al Hitchcock, chairman of the fire district.
To raise the millage cap, the district must get a favorable ruling from both the state House and Senate and the governor must sign off on the request.
The fire board is asking that the cap be doubled, to 20 mills. But fire officials say that they will not ask the public to approve that level of funding.
“We anticipate asking for 2 mills,” said Hitchcock. “That should let us staff Fire Station 4 and meet our obligations for the next 10 to 15 years. We’ve essentially been providing 2013 services with 1992 dollars, and we just can’t do that anymore.”
State Sen. Ray Cleary in January introduced legislation in the S.C. Senate to lift the cap. The bill was referred to the finance committee. Efforts to reach Cleary were not successful.
Not everyone is in favor of lifting the cap.
Murrells Inlet businessman Tom Swatzel, a former Georgetown County councilman and county Republican Party chairman, has written to Cleary and state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch noting that since fiscal 2004, overall revenues for the MI/GC Fire District have grown by 57 percent to 88 percent in Georgetown County and 31 percent in Horry County.
“And that’s not counting the contract that Georgetown County has with the district to provide ambulance service within the district,” he said, adding that Horry County also has a contract with the district to provide EMS services to part of the area served by the fire district.
“The way the legislation is written, the cap needs to be lifted because of EMS services, but those services are covered by current money,” Swatzel said.
Hitchcock did not disagree that the funding for the district has increased, but set costs have more than eaten up those funds.
While the community has grown by about 59 percent in the past decade, gas prices have more than doubled and the cost to provide benefits for firefighters continue to rise. So do the number of calls. So far this year, firefighters and emergency personnel have responded to 984 calls.
“I think our residents know that we are a good bang for their bucks,” said Fire Chief Norman Knight.
“We’re in pretty good shape now, but we need to look to the future, too.”
Among those future needs is the staffing for Fire Station 4. While a grant will pay for construction of the station, Knight has long said that the station would not be built unless there was money to staff the station.
Completion of the station on McDonald Shortcut Road would give the district two stations in Horry County and two in Georgetown County, two stations east and two west of Highway 17.
Without state approval, Hitchcock said, the fire district would not be able to provide the level of services it does now, which could affect the insurance costs for district homeowners and businesses.
Homeowners’ insurance costs are based in part on how far a residence is from the nearest fire station.
“If we lose our ISO 3 and 4 rating it would cost each homeowner nearly double in insurance costs than the amount he would pay with a 2-mill increase,” Hitchcock said.
But Swatzel countered that counties and cities have had to live within their means in tough times. “The fire district is no different.”
By Anita Crone
For The Times
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