The St. Johns Fire District Commission took a vote this week that made for some pretty good politics.
The public service district board voted 4-3 against adding two new seats to the commission for Kiawah Island. Some Johns Islanders were openly happy about this — they don't want those rich folks telling them what to do.
Unfortunately, this could come back to bite them in the billfold.
See, Kiawah and Seabrook taxpayers provide about $8 million of the fire district's $10.5 million annual budget. That comes out to 77 percent.
For that $8 million, Kiawah gets two fire stations and Seabrook gets one.
You know, if those two towns decided to form their own fire department, they could probably do it for less than $8 million.
And if they pulled out of the fire district, Johns and Wadmalaw islands would be, well, hosed.
Fire District Commission Chairman J. Barry Hart pushed for this — it wasn't a request from Kiawah or Seabrook.
He is looking at the district's budget, and knows that if those two islands bolt, the bottom falls out of the bottom line. Basically, Kiawah and Seabrook are subsidizing fire service on Johns and Wadmalaw. So he wanted to offer them greater say in the district as an incentive to stay.
“This would not give them control of the board, just more opportunity to be heard,” Hart says.
About 15 years ago, Kiawah and Seabrook studied the idea of forming their own fire department, but decided to hold off. That has helped Johns and Wadmalaw build a really good fire department.
“Think about the consequences to the people of Johns Island and Wadmalaw,” Hart says.
He has, and this is how it plays out: If the district lost $8 million a year, it would be forced to lay off nearly 80 percent of its 130 firefighters.
State law will not let them raise taxes enough to compensate for that kind of loss of revenue, but taxes would go up. And the loss of all those firefighters means the district's insurance rating would go down — and probably send homeowners' fire insurance soaring.
That might make annexing into the city of Charleston look financially attractive to some Johns Island folks.
Poking the bear
Fran Wermuth, a member of Kiawah Town Council and chairwoman of its Public Safety Committee, says an ad hoc committee has been looking at fire service on the island.
That doesn't mean the town is thinking of leaving the district. Wermuth says most residents are happy with their fire service and feel part of the St. Johns community.
But truth is, it would be hard to blame Kiawah or Seabrook if they did go solo.
It would be a nightmare for Johns and Wadmalaw, just as Hart predicts, but Kiawah and Seabrook also have a duty to be good stewards of their residents' tax money.
Bottom line, it doesn't help for Johns Islanders to poke them in the eye over something so trivial as a couple of board seats.
It could turn out that the price of pride is painfully high.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org