Fire district sees cut in water rescue funds as result of tax increase – Coastal Observer


Fire district sees cut in water rescue funds as result of tax increase

Plans to expand the water rescue program are on hold.

The Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District’s plan to expand  its Marine Safety Initiative next summer is now on hold after Georgetown County cut its accommodation tax grant.

“That is something that is directly tourist driven [and] difficult for us to offset through any type of tax revenue or impact fee. That’s why A-tax funding is appropriate for this venture,” Fire Chief J.R. Haney told the district’s board this week. 

Voters in the fire district approved a property tax increase this summer, but the money from that will be used to add a fourth ambulance and expand the ranks of firefighters.

The district asked for $154,383  in accommodations tax for the water rescue program, about what it received last year from the money that the county receives from a state tax on short-term rentals. An advisory committee recommended it get $147,686. County Council cut that to $82,686.

The final cut – $65,000 – went to the county’s rural fire district to buy a water rescue boat. Council members noted the district’s tax increase and a lack of a water rescue boat in the rural fire department.

District officals are concerned that the tax increase led to the reduced accommodations tax grant.

“The department lacks the funding, with the current funding vehicle, to be able to staff water rescue personnel throughout the season in the times that we would need them,” Haney said. “A-tax funding is crucial.”

The county’s Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee recommended funding for Murrells Inlet over the county fire district because state law requires that accommodations tax money be spent primarily where it is collected.

The county received $1.6 million in accommodations tax funds this year. It also received $2.1 million in grant requests from 18 entities. According to Capt. Brad Bemis, 97 percent of the accommodation tax funds in Georgetown County are generated on the Waccamaw Neck.

“If you’re not going to go with the committee’s recommendation then you might as well just do all the work yourself,” Haney said. The cut “requires some adjustment on our part to be able to make this work for next year.” 

The Marine Safety Initiative puts firefighters, who are American Red Cross certified lifeguards, on the beach on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Water rescue equipment is kept at a station within blocks of the beach.

With full funding, the district planned to add 14 days during the busiest times of the summer, like the week of the Fourth of July holiday.

“Those rentals are not just booked on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They’re booked all throughout the week,” Haney said. “It makes a difference and that’s what we’re here to do.”

Battalion Chief Brennan Moore, who oversees the initiative, said it will be a challenge even to continue to staff those three days a week. The district may end end up using firefighters who are not certified lifeguards on the beach, he added.

Without adequate staffing for the beach patrol and the district’s other stations, fire trucks are taken out of service and can’t respond to emergencies elsewhere in the area.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure rescues are being done. But there will be a delay and that puts it on our own citizen-taxpayers,” Moore said. “If we’re shutting down fire engines, now they don’t have someone to directly respond to them.”

“All we’re trying to do is try to make the odds as favorable as possible for us to be able save somebody’s life,” Haney said. “That’s increasing the odds of that happening by providing that staffing.”

The district is looking to increase its staffing in its fiscal year that begins Jan. 1 after voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum to increase property taxes from 14 to 21 mills. The vote allows a future increase of 7 mills.

Haney said some of the new tax revenue will be used to hire 12 paramedics and three firefighters next year. The district is already taking applications for those jobs.

In 2025, Haney wants to hire 15 more firefighters.



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