Originally created 11/11/05

Relief fund has fire chief up in arms

GRANITEVILLE - It might be called the disaster relief fund for Graniteville, but $340,000 in this year's state budget isn't being spent in the town.

Most of the money is going to the Aiken County Sheriff's Office for new patrol cars, a fact that's not going over well with the people who were first on the scene of the Jan. 6 disaster.

If the state's handing out cash and calling it disaster reimbursements, then that money should go to Graniteville, said Phil Napier, the chief of the Graniteville-Vaucluse-Warrenville Volunteer Fire Department.

Anything less smacks of "stinking, crooked politics," he said.

"Nothing justifies not sending the money where the disaster was," the chief added.

What has raised Chief Napier's anger is how the money in South Carolina's 2005-06 budget is called "reimbursements for the Graniteville disaster relief."

The state is sending the money to Aiken County in quarterly $85,000 checks. And the county is spending most of it on 37 new vehicles for the sheriff's office, which has been replacing its aging patrol fleet but suffered little equipment damage from the chlorine spill.

Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, said he'd prefer not to comment on criticism from Chief Napier but denied any slight to Graniteville.

"I don't want to get into a debate with him," Mr. Smith said.

However, he said the money was always intended to go to the sheriff's office, since that agency supports the entire Aiken County community. Originally the amount was $240,000, but during the legislative process Sen. Tommy Moore added $100,000, Mr. Smith said.

The state Legislature went on a tear last year appropriating money for law enforcement, Mr. Smith said, and this particular line item in the state's budget just happened to be called "disaster relief."

Calling it something else might not have gotten it passed through the Legislature, he said.

"This is going to help Gran-iteville," Mr. Smith said. "This is not taking it out of Graniteville, because you're going to have police cars patrolling Graniteville."

The Jan. 6 train collision that sent a cloud of chlorine over the small town killed nine people, injured hundreds more and forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

The GVW Fire Department, which first responded to the accident and called for the evacuation, lost an estimated $700,000 in equipment to damage caused by the corrosive chemical.

The main fire station, located near the crash site, had to be practically gutted. Today, two new fire engines costing a combined $517,000 sit in its bays. Almost everything else in the building also is new, Chief Napier said.

Though insurance paid for most of the damages - about $570,000 - the station hasn't recouped all of its losses.

Still, Chief Napier said, he doesn't think the state money should go to the fire department.

"We're in good shape, and we're not asking anybody to give us anything," he said.

He's not even holding it against the sheriff's office, but he and others are adamant that any money labeled disaster relief should be spent in Graniteville, even if it's to help pay for a memorial being planned for the victims.

"If the money was appropriated for the 'Graniteville Disaster Relief,' that's where the money needs to be spent - in Graniteville, for the folks who suffered," said Grady Friday, the assistant chief and president of the department's board of directors. "Spending it out in the county is probably not its intent."

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.


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