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Sprinkler incentives still a bargain – and sound public policy
Lee Walton

Given the financial and human cost of the Sofa Super Store tragedy, and the City of Charleston’s own findings, repeated in Sunday’s Palter and Chatter article “Sprinkler incentives not hot item for cities”, that “…the fire would have been controlled quickly with only minor damage had there been a sprinkler system”, investing a one-time local property tax credit of 25% against cost to install fire suppression sprinkler systems is not only a bargain, but good public policy.

Notwithstanding Mayor Riley’s recent claim that the state legislature provided only “an unfunded mandate”, the current incentive plan offers Charleston a choice to pay a little now or a lot later. Of all people, Riley now knows the cost to pay later, given the tens of millions of tax dollars currently being tossed into the City’s circa 1950’s Fire Department to bring it up to par following the aftermath the Sofa Super Store fire.

A city-backed incentive plan would encourage public-private partnerships to protect not only the lives and property of city taxpayers, but also greatly reduce the risk to city firefighters who must confront raging conflagrations. In practical terms, the city’s investment in sprinkler incentives would not be relatively significant or overly burdensome, because most new and significantly remodeled commercial and institutional structures of even moderate size now are required to install sprinkler systems under current city building codes.

The city’s investment, as modest tax credits, would be in some larger private homes and smaller, older structures, and commercial buildings not currently required to install sprinklers. As a public safety obligation of municipal government to protect the lives and property of its citizens, the city’s investment would not be unlike installing additional fire hydrants or providing special fire department equipment and personnel to fight fires. The city’s investment would be proactive and encourage a greater private sector investment in eligible new or remodeled commercial structures. Collateral benefits would include lower insurance costs, higher ISO ratings, greatly enhanced public safety, and fire suppression systems which the city would not have to test, maintain, or repair – that responsibility and cost would be the property owner’s, not the city’s.

The history and architecture of most buildings remaining within the lower peninsula of Charleston were literally shaped by fire. One need only look at the locally famous map of the city’s historic fires that swept across the peninsula to judge the impact of previous fires upon the historic homes, churches, and public buildings that now represent the “crown jewels” of the city’s historic district. Many of the oldest, former maritime warehouses on East Bay and within the Market Area, are now home to most of the finest dining establishments in Charleston; very few are protected by sprinkler systems. One can only imagine the tragedy if one of these old unsprinkled multi-story restaurants caught fire on a busy Friday or Saturday evening. The old heart pine and cypress timber framing and floors in these buildings would go off like a bomb.

A one-time 25% cost incentive to protect the city’s most vulnerable and valuable homes and buildings with adequate fire sprinkler systems would be a solid, sound, public investment that would pay immeasurable dividends in the future. Imagine how many sprinkler system incentives could have been funded with the $1.8 million that Riley paid for the still barren site of the former Sofa Super Store. Which choice offers the best investment of public funds with the greatest return to the citizens of Charleston – proactive sprinkler incentives or a mayor’s guilt-ridden buy-out?