Silver Bluff fights for compensation

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AIKEN --- When Silver Bluff Volunteer Fire Department members saw the growth that was taking place in the district, they knew they needed to prepare.

Capt. Kevin Lancaster, a spokesman for the Silver Bluff Volunteer Fire Department, says the city of Aiken should compensate the department after it annexed new subdivisions out of its district, taking away money from fees.  Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Capt. Kevin Lancaster, a spokesman for the Silver Bluff Volunteer Fire Department, says the city of Aiken should compensate the department after it annexed new subdivisions out of its district, taking away money from fees.

New subdivisions were being built, adding to the nearly 1,600 homes that the department already serves.

"One hundred percent of funds collected from fire fees from residents go to the operation and maintenance of equipment and the facility," said Capt. Kevin Lancaster, a department spokesman.

So when the department saw that about 800 properties were to be developed within its district, it decided to purchase extra equipment, incurring $160,000 in debt.

Counting on the future fire fees the properties would have generated, the department purchased a fire truck and a tanker.

However, the preparation hit a snag when the city of Aiken, at the request of the developer, annexed the area in October 2006, cutting off a potential revenue source for the fire department.

The annexed area makes up Phase IV of the Woodside Plantation subdivision, a gated community off Silver Bluff Road.

"We don't have any issue with the annexation with respect to the fire department," Capt. Lancaster said, noting that the rest of Woodside is already in the city limits and served by the city's fire department.

What the department has an issue with is the city taking the land and the department's revenue without offering anything in return.

"We've gone through some attempts (with the city) to negotiate an agreeable resolution, and that process has pretty much failed," Capt. Lancaster said. "We still believe the city should compensate the residents of District 17 for the lost revenue source that they have taken from the citizens."

The city has petitioned the Aiken County Council to redraw the lines of the fire district.

County council members moved forward with the boundary redrawings Tuesday, approving them on second reading, although at least one councilwoman said she sympathizes with the fire department.

An e-mail sent from Silver Bluff Vice Chairman Cheri Lancaster to council members Tuesday revealed that the city offered the fire department less than $1,200 over the dispute, which Councilwoman LaWana McKenzie said is a "huge, huge difference" from what the land will produce in property taxes once it's developed.

"That's almost a slap in the face," she said.

State law allowed for the formation of a tribunal to reach an agreement, but Capt. Lancaster said the tribunal failed, "so now the only recourse is legal adjudication."

Aiken City Manager Roger LeDuc said the city is not obligated under state law to compensate the fire department for any lost fire fees.

"We have gone ahead and offered to pay them a small amount of money to make up for any possible loss they might have had," he said.

Mr. LeDuc said the city offered to pay the department what it would have received in fire fees for the vacant land for the next 25 years.

For undeveloped land, the fire department receives $45 a year for 500 acres as opposed to $80 in fire fees for each residence.

Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian said the county's only involvement is in establishing boundaries for fire districts.

"The concerns with rural fire departments are a lot of them have (government) loans to buy equipment that they have to pay back," Mr. Killian said. "And if they lose areas they can't get fire fees off of, then their ability to pay back those loans becomes a little bit more questionable."

The 800 new properties would have increased the fire department's budget by 65 percent.

In a letter sent to the department Oct. 16, 2006, the city stated it "would not be obligated to provide any form of financial assistance to Silver Bluff. The basis for this assertion is that these properties were undeveloped at the time they were annexed."

If the city chooses not to reimburse Silver Bluff, Capt. Lancaster said, there's a high possibility that the department would have to replace the lost revenue by increasing fire fees.

"Is that fair that because of the expansion of the city the residents of District 17 should have to pay more for their fire service?" he asked.

Reach Michelle Guffey at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or michelle.guffey@augustachronicle.com.

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