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Fire Sprinkler Reimbursements – Who pays and who benefits?
Lee Walton

Proposed statewide efforts to underwrite fire sprinkler systems for homes and businesses hit critical snags last week that now threaten to block legislative action sought in response to the loss of nine Charleston firefighters in last June’s Sofa Super Store tragedy. Recent articles in the State and Palter & Chatter have followed differing versions of current bills as the House and Senate struggle to resolve the fundamental issue for funding subsidies. Although broad, nonpartisan support still remains to encourage and partially fund installation of sprinkler systems, there is an apparent lack of political will to accept responsibility for funding rebates or tax credits by state, county or local governments.

In a February 22nd Palter & Chatter article, Senator Larry Grooms, R- Bonneau, summed-up Senate opposition to state-wide funding for sprinkler subsidies from state coffers for tax credits or rebates. He suggested that local governments be given the option to impose stricter sprinkler regulations with incentive reimbursements, albeit with local funding. “I’m not a guy who likes to tell other people what to do. If one municipality wants to require sprinklers, I don’t want to interfere. If some want to be less restrictive, I’ve got no problem with that,” he said. Senator Grooms correctly identified the sprinkler problem as a municipal issue, not a rural county or small town issue. Governor Sanford also recently expressed his opposition to the use of state income or sales tax credits to provide subsidies for sprinkler systems.

In fairness to all statewide taxpayers, those who would benefit the most form this legislation should be required to fund sprinkler subsidies. Rural counties and small town taxpayers throughout the state should not be burdened with a problem unique to large municipalities with dense residential, commercial and institutional development. Most of rural South Carolina has neither the extensive need for, nor the ability to supply water for conventional sprinkler systems. In rural counties, the most common large buildings are consolidated schools or isolated factories with either separate, on-site sprinkler supply facilities or buildings designed and constructed with fire-proof materials required by state regulations and building codes. Likewise, most small towns have neither the level of need nor the necessary public water distribution facilities to supply building sprinkler systems.

Within most counties, the minimal need for building sprinkler systems and lack of adequate utilities to support their effective use parallels the statewide perspective. Rural counties do not have the structural needs, property tax base, or the ability to fund public infrastructure necessary to supply sprinkler systems. Charleston County Council Chairman Tim Scott accurately summarized the reluctance of most county officials in last Saturday’s Palter & Chatter article, Counties could end up paying if sprinkler bill passes, stating “Anytime the state shifts the burden to the counties, it raises more questions than it answers.” Notwithstanding the probability of another unfunded mandate for counties to administer, three of the state’s largest inter-county municipalities, Charleston, North Charleston, and Columbia, are each located within two or more counties. Consequently, sprinkler subsidies, if administered on a county-by-county basis would be overly complex. Portions of the City of North Charleston are located in Dorchester County, and all of Daniel Island and large areas of the Cainhoy Peninsula within the City of Charleston are located in Berkeley County. Property or sales taxes collected in Charleston County should not pay for sprinkler subsidies on Daniel Island or in Cainhoy Village.

Logically, municipal government should be responsible for deciding who should qualify for sprinkler rebates and subsidies; municipal government should also be totally responsible for funding such subsidies. As the entity empowered with local building code enforcement and the obligation to provide fire protection, large municipalities also have the duty to their citizens and business owners to determine the need and priority for retrofitting existing building with sprinklers or mandating them in new structures. The land use planning authority exercised by large cities to create dense urban residential and commercial districts and core clusters of massive, multi-story buildings obligates them to be responsible for fire protection and the funding of subsidies for sprinkler systems without assistance from less wealthy counties and small towns throughout the state. The state government, rural counties and small towns with no authority over land use or public safety requirements in large municipalities should not be expected to share the funding burden necessary to provide tax credits or rebates for sprinklers mandates required within these cities.

Who should be eligible for locally administered and funded sprinkler system subsidies?

All public buildings and structures required by code to install sprinklers should not be eligible for subsidies in any form. Similarly, churches and all other institutions exempt from property taxes should be ineligible. Commercial and residential developers, commercial property owners and single-family property owners who would likely install sprinklers in new structures for insurance or building code benefits should not receive these wind-fall subsidies. Each potential applicant should be individually evaluated based upon public cost-benefit considerations on a sliding scale. In circumstances where potential danger to firefighters and loss of property is determined to be significant, subsidies to install sprinklers would be in the public’s best interest and therefore justified.

Of foremost concern, eligibility for sprinkler subsidies should be based upon real need, not pure greed.

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