New builder, community for Cane Bay Plantation

Residents in Berkeley County's Cane Bay Plantation want to create a special tax district to help fund a fire station in their community. File/Staff

Berkeley County could certainly use more organized recreation programs and athletic fields.

County Council members, particularly Steve Davis, are absolutely right about that.

That’s because Berkeley County isn’t some sparsely populated collection of rural hamlets anymore. It’s one of the 20 fastest-growing counties in the nation — in the past decade, the population has increased by about 33 percent.

The southern end of the county is, in fact, a city in everything but name. It desperately needs municipal services, and residents have every right to expect them.

But you know what they need even more than ball fields?

More fire service.

Last week, County Council hastily put a referendum question on the November ballot asking voters if they want to create a special taxing district for recreation programs. Now they are unsurprisingly being inundated with complaints from residents upset there wasn’t a public hearing.

Pretty soon, those emails and phone calls are liable to turn to fire service — and questions about why lingering proposals for a countywide fire district didn’t supersede this push for recreation programs.

Because the 55,000 people who’ve moved into the county in the past decade, many of whom continue to pay exorbitant fire insurance premiums, probably aren’t in the mood to play ball.

A matter of priorities

Berkeley County Council is trying to sort out whether putting the recreation referendum question to voters in November is legal.

The council clearly didn’t follow Freedom of Information Act laws, which demand 24-hour notice and a public hearing. That technicality is probably enough to get the question booted from the ballot.

But Davis has some right to cry foul, because he’s been harping on this for over a year and council has refused to act. Some members believe, reasonably, there should be a more concrete plan in place before moving forward.

Such disputes don’t allow council to skip legal procedure before making such decisions. It’s not like this is Washington.

Ultimately, however, the bigger problem is that the county has bigger problems. Councilman Josh Whitley says he supports Davis’ efforts, and that his colleague’s heart is in the right place, but he won’t support the move without a detailed plan.

So he wants an attorney general’s opinion about the legality of what council did last week.

But Whitley also knows the backlash — which thus far has focused on the lack of a public hearing, and opposition to a new tax — will soon turn to a question of priorities.

“We’ve got more important fires to put out,” Whitley says.

Literally.

The county can’t allow developers to turn the southern end of the county into a massive suburb, and ignore important needs. They’ve rightfully added more sheriff’s deputies and ambulance service.

Now it’s time to improve fire service.

The easier route

The council recently hired a company to study fire service across Berkeley County, and the results were unsurprising.

The study found most of the county’s volunteer fire departments suffer from staffing shortages, lack of funding and not nearly enough equipment.

This has become a crisis in Cane Bay, which is a great neighborhood (even if there is only one way in and out). Those folks are still awaiting a Whitesville Volunteer Fire Department station that’s going to be built inside the sprawling collection of subdivisions.

Meanwhile, people are still paying thousands of dollars a year in fire premiums because of the current Whitesville station’s distance from the neighborhood.

Whitesville VFD staff is doing the best they can with what they have to work with, but they need help from the county.

It doesn’t take an expert to figure out the political problem here. For the county to improve fire service, it would have to consolidate more than two dozen departments, buy a lot of expensive equipment, hire staff and take on each of those districts’ debt. Which is not inconsiderable.

That’s not an easy fix.

It’s far easier to build playgrounds and basketball hoops. And although such amenities are important, they aren’t as important as a fire service district.

Unless, of course, Berkeley County residents use those facilities to practice running — you know, in case their house catches fire.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.