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A $3.1 million question before the York County Council whether to build a new fire training center or new fire substations in rural areas could get an answer on Monday.
A new training facility to replace the nearly 30-year-old existing one would mean more room to build and repair trucks, better maintenance equipment and larger office and training space for all of the countys 600 paid and volunteer firefighters.
Strategically adding fire substations across the county could cut by half the cost of homeowners insurance for residents now living more than five miles from a fire station. County officials dont keep track of how many homes are outside that radius.
The Rural Fire Control Board which oversees the 17 rural fire departments in York County and administers money allocated by the County Council for those departments has given the council its opinion: Redirect $3.1 million in bond money, originally targeted to build substations, to pay for a new training facility.
The County Council will consider that recommendation when it meets at 6 p.m. Monday.
The council must hold a public hearing on the issue and vote three times before it can shift the bond money away from its original 2008 allocation to build up to six fire substations.
They also will hear from the architect the county is paying $15,000 to evaluate proposed training facility sites, said Anna Moore, assistant county manager.
Since 2008, County Manager Jim Baker said, new representatives have joined the council and a lot people have sort of changed gears a little bit on the issue.
After much debate over the actual location of proposed substations in 2008 and 2009, he said, the council started to question the substations on the whole.
Four years later, the debate is still going and could end without the councils paying for any substations at all.
Baker said he hasnt heard much opposition to the idea of building substations, but there is debate over where substations should be built and whether the county should pay for them with the $3.1 million in bond money.
One reason for the debate: Although the substation proposal would bring nearly everyone in the county within five miles of a station, Baker said, the population is so sparse in those areas, its difficult to justify the cost.
Also at issue is fairness.
Opponents say many fire districts already have raised money and used special tax dollars to build new substations, so it would be unfair to start paying for substations with countywide tax money now.
Proponents say the county should help pay for substations in areas where the population is so low that the tax load on those residents would be too heavy.
Sharon Town Councilman Joe Cox, who represented largely rural western York County on the County Council from 2006 to 2010, championed the idea of building substations in 2008.
About 1,500 residents from his district were paying twice the amount for homeowners insurance than others in the district, Cox said, because their homes were more than five miles away from a fire station.
Cox, who is unopposed in his bid to return to the District 3 seat in the Nov. 6 election, said the County Council should know definite costs involved before committing to either plan.
Im not willing to write a blank check, he said.
Spending county money on a new fire training facility is something Cox said he could be in agreement with the County Council on, but only if it is built on county-owned property.
A home more than five miles from a station wont benefit from a local fire departments Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating. Those homeowners typically receive a 10 rating the worst which equates to paying more for homeowners insurance.
The ISO evaluates communities based on their fire departments number of full-time employees, water availability and the type and quantity of equipment used, said Chris Stevenson, manager of York County offices for S.C.s Farm Bureau Insurance Co.
In York County, those outside the five-mile radius are adversely affected by higher insurance premiums, he said, essentially paying double the amount than if they lived closer to a station
Based on his companys calculations, Stevenson said, the cost difference is tremendous.
For someone with an average credit rating, he said, living in a $200,000 home within five miles of a fire station with an average ISO rating of five, the annual cost of insuring the home is about $500.
If that home were located outside the five-mile radius, the owner would pay closer to $1,000 for the same coverage.
The cost would be affected slightly by other factors such as whether the home is brick or has siding, Stevenson said.
Chiefs back new training facility
Smyrna Fire Chief Rickey Wilson, who is also the senior fire prevention technician for York County, works at the current fire training facility and offices on Ogden Road in Rock Hill. The Smyrna department serves Smyrna and rural areas near S.C. 5 and S.C. 97 north of Hickory Grove.
Substations are needed in some areas, he said, but hes not convinced spending the money to benefit only some residents is the best use of countywide taxpayer dollars.
Fundraising and special local fire tax money could be used instead of county bond money to build substations, Wilson said. The County Council can approve levying a local fire tax if fire district officials accumulate signatures from 15 percent of registered voters in their area.
Bethel Fire Chief Mike Laws agrees. Based on conversations with other fire chiefs, he said, the desire for a new training facility is widespread.
The Bethel fire department which serves much of the area between Clover and Lake Wylie has one main station and two substations, paid for primarily by community fundraising efforts and supplemented by an operations budget from the county and a special local fire tax.
Of nearly 22,000 people living in Bethels fire district, Laws said, only about 10 homes on one road are farther than five miles from a station or substation.
The countys pretty well covered, he said.
Clover Fire Chief Charlie Love doesnt think theres an immediate need for more substations in his district which covers the town and unincorporated areas between Bethel and Bethany along U.S. 321 and S.C. 55.
Building a new training facility with the bond money is a wiser move, he said, and would help everyone involved.
Whether the county pays for substations or a fire training facility, Bethany-Santiago Fire Chief Tim Gordon said, his department is planning to build a substation on S.C.161 near Moton Road and Whitworth Road. The department currently serves its district from one station.
About 200 people in the Bethany-Santiago district which stretches from the state line to the York Fire Departments service area in northwestern York County live farther than five miles from a fire station, he said.
Those residents are more concerned about when a substation will be built closer to them, Gordon said, rather than how the department will pay for it.
Were going to have to do something, he said. Should the county fund it? Thats not up to me.
The Bethany-Santiago fire districts current population could pay for building a substation through a special fire tax and fundraising easier than other districts with less people and fewer businesses, Gordon said.
In the 2008 proposal presented to the County Council, the Bethany-Santiago fire department was set to receive $404,203 to build a substation.
Other locations for substations in the proposal were the Beersheba area, Sandifer Road near U.S. 321 near Bethesda, and S.C. 322 near the county line in McConnells.
Still, Gordon said, the county needs to do something about the current training facility, which might fit the need for today, but is aging very fast.
Many times weve overpacked that facility with people during training sessions, Gordon said.
Current facility is old design
The cost of a new training facility would depend on where it would be built. Baker, the county manager, said the $3.1 million available in bond money likely would be enough to pay for it.
The County Council is considering four locations:
• The current nine-acre property on Ogden Road, which the county leases from the city of Rock Hill.
• Two county-owned properties on McFarland Road west of Rock Hill.
• A lot owned by York Electric Cooperative on Genthe Court west of Rock Hill.
If the county decides to rebuild on the Ogden Road site, Baker said, parts of the existing building could be used, but much would have to be demolished.
In 2009, an engineer analysis confirmed that the current floor cannot support expanding the existing building for use as a maintenance shop, according to a county Department of Fire Safety history of the Rock Hill property.
The existing flood plain severely limits the location where any new structures may be built on the current property.
The buildings at the Ogden Road location are of an old design, Wilson said.
The first structure, a 20-foot by 30-foot metal building acquired in the 1970s, formerly stood as an office building at Rock Hills landfill. Now, six fire code inspectors/arson investigators share the space, with the desks fit snugly in the room.
The countys needs have outgrown the facility, Wilson said.
Without knowing the cost of the new facility, Baker said, he doesnt know if money would be left over to partially pay for the original substation plan.
If money remains, he said, the countys first priority would be to buy land for the proposed substations and then allow individual fire chiefs to explore the option of raising money or local taxes to build the stations.
If population in those areas grows, Baker said, a special local tax to build substations could be more viable.
The council has some very tough decisions to make, Baker said, and hes not hearing any consensus from them.