Water companies would be banned from charging extra fees to connect new fire sprinkler systems, and the state would encourage businesses to install sprinklers through a combination of tax credits and insurance discounts, under legislation proposed Wednesday in the state Senate.
Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell introduced the bill. His Charleston district includes the section of West Ashley where nine city firefighters were killed in June while fighting a blaze at the Sofa Super Store.
McConnell learned in the weeks following the fire, from reports in The Post and Courier, that it was the Charleston Water System's policy to charge as much as $116,700 to connect a new sprinkler system to the utility's waterlines. That's when he first announced he would consider banning connection charges related to sprinkler systems, which are also levied by utilities in Summerville, Columbia, Greenville and other cities.
The Charleston Water System eliminated all up-front fees for new sprinkler systems in July, following the newspaper's reports, but said there was no reason to believe the fees had kept the Sofa Super
Store from installing sprinklers.
An analysis by The Post and Courier found that more than 90 percent of commercial and industrial buildings in the Charleston Water System service area lacked sprinklers.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said in September that the city would like to make sprinkler systems a requirement in some, if not all, public buildings. He called upon state lawmakers to give municipalities the authority to require the installation of sprinklers in some existing businesses.
McConnell's legislation would not do that. Instead, McConnell's bill would offer limited incentives for installing sprinklers, a state income tax credit equal to 5 percent of the actual installation cost, up to a maximum credit of $5,000, and mandatory insurance discounts, with a minimum amount to be set by the state Department of Insurance.
McConnell has opposed mandates for sprinkler installation, including an effort to mandate sprinklers in hotels following a 2004 fire at a Greenville Comfort Inn that killed six people. In 2005, McConnell said he would oppose any bill that required sprinklers in existing hotels.
Sen. David Thomas, R-Seneca, was a leader in the fight to require sprinklers in hotels, and said Wednesday that the Charleston fire highlighted the need for the Legislature to get measures in place.
"What it tells us is tragedies are going to happen; go ahead and deal with the problem right now," Thomas said.
As chairman of the Banking and Insurance Committee, Thomas said that as soon as lawmakers return to Columbia next month he will be investigating legislation that would require commercial and industrial buildings to be retrofitted with sprinkler systems.
Thomas said his committee is going to take testimony from firefighters, commercial building owners and taxpayers. He said any bill requiring sprinklers in existing buildings could include incentives, and possibly exceptions for historic buildings.