Originally created 06/26/04

Fire districts face crunch

AIKEN - In the GVW fire district, volunteer firefighters are well equipped, with three stations, six engines, a ladder truck and a service truck, all up to date and well maintained.

The district, which covers Graniteville, Vaucluse and Warrenville, took in about $151,000 in revenue last year and was the first volunteer fire department in South Carolina to improve its ISO rating - a measuring stick used by insurance companies to rate fire protection - from a 5 to a 4.

"We're well taken care of here," said Graniteville Fire Chief Phil Napier.

But 17 miles southwest, the Jackson Volunteer Fire Department is struggling to maintain its aging fleet of fire trucks, two of which date to the 1970s, with an annual budget of $23,000.

The department is holding a fund-raising concert at Carolina Dragway in Jackson today in hopes of raising enough money for a new pumper/tanker truck to replace a model built in 1977.

"We simply don't have money to buy new trucks," said Jackson Fire Chief Jeff Miles.

In Aiken County's more than 20 volunteer fire districts, according to those who work there, the quality of fire protection depends on how many people and businesses are located in each district.

"It all comes down to population," said Mr. Napier, whose district, despite having the largest revenue stream in the county among volunteer departments, charges only $35 in fire fees for each residence. "We're densely populated."

Most volunteer fire districts in Aiken County are not so well-funded.

A recent survey conducted by Aiken County Assistant County Administrator Joan Donnelly showed that more than half of the 91 fire vehicles were more than 20 years old.

Of 19 districts that responded to the survey, 11 had budgets under $50,000, and eight were under $30,000. Hollow Creek and Sandy Ridge Volunteer Fire Departments took in $8,000 and $9,000, respectively.

The financial crunch has real-world implications in emergencies, Ms. Donnelly said.

"Can you imagine getting into a fire truck to go to a fire, turning the key and nothing happening?" Ms. Donnelly said.

A solution may be in the works. Aiken County Council members are reviewing a proposal that could see a countywide fire protection levied in order to prop up cash-strapped departments. The option is still in the study stages, and the earliest it could be implemented is 2005, Ms. Donnelly said.

The tax increase would not be insignificant. The county's current millage is 66.5 mills, and the proposed fire tax calls for an additional 7 to 10 mills. Whether homeowners would pay more or less for fire protection depends on where they live and what they've been paying in fire fees, Ms. Donnelly says.

Chief Miles, whose department, like many others, scrapes for cash through barbecues, rummage sales and fund-raisers like today's, says a countywide fire tax "is a great idea."

"It would help some of these harder-hit departments that don't have the money," he said. "We're more fortunate than some departments, but not as much as we need to be."

Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or stephen.gurr@augustachronicle.com.


WHAT: Carolina Beach Blast
WHERE: Carolina Dragway, Jackson, Dragstrip Road
WHEN: Gates open at 10 a.m.
WHO: The Swingin' Medallions, Shagtime, the Original Tams


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