The city of Charleston has spent or set aside more than $7.4 million in response to the Sofa Super Store fire, much of it to improve its Fire Department. And with a variety of fire-related matters still unfolding, a drain on city coffers will continue.
The city recently released a breakdown of the costs to The Post and Courier in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
The money comes from a combination of funds budgeted since the fire, emergency reserves and a $228,000 donation from local businessman Gene Reed to pay for firefighter uniforms. Some of the items are one-time purchases, while others, such as salaries for new positions, will require annual funding.
The Fire Department's operating budget last year was about $15 million, but that wasn't nearly enough to cover the improvements that were needed. The effort has already required the city's first property tax increase since 1999.
Gordon Routley, who heads the expert consulting panel that recommended many of the changes, said the amount of money the city is spending should send a message to other fire departments and the elected leaders who oversee them. "In some cases, it's catching up with money that could have been spent earlier. It's an expensive proposition, and it's a good reason to avoid firefighter fatalities."
Money spent or spoken for as a result of the fire includes:
-- About $3.6 million for staffing, equipment and training improvements in the Charleston Fire Department, which lost nine of its firefighters in the June 18 blaze. The city-appointed consulting panel hired in the wake of the tragedy to analyze the department recommended some 200 changes touching on every facet of the Fire Department. The most expensive upgrades include dozens of new positions for firefighters, officers and dispatchers.
-- About $1.8 million is tagged for the purchase of the sofa store property, which is to be turned into a memorial honoring the fallen firefighters. The city intends to borrow the money and hopes to offset some of the cost through donations and assistance from county, state and federal sources.
-- $1.2 million to supplement state workers' compensation payments to the families of the fallen.
-- About $320,000 in compensation and expenses for the six-member panel of firefighting consultants. When Charleston Mayor Joe Riley announced the hiring of the panel in August, he said the compensation for any member of the team would not exceed $35,000. Two panel members have already exceeded the initial compensation limits. In addition, the city purchased professional liability insurance for about $15,000 and agreed to pick up legal expenses for panel members should they be sued as a result of their work.
-- Nearly $270,000 for post-tragedy counseling services for firefighters and their families.
-- About $76,500 in outside legal fees and fines to settle alleged safety violations cited by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In September, the state cited the Fire Department for four violations and fined the city $9,325.
The city appealed and later reached a settlement agreement with the state that lowered the overall fine to $3,160, which the city paid in January. The city's in-house legal staff also worked on the appeal, but the city did not provide a cost for those efforts.
-- Nearly $62,000 for a memorial service to honor the nine firefighters killed in the blaze.
Some members of City Council have complained that Riley has left them out of the loop on issues related to the fire.
Councilman Timothy Mallard, who joined council this year, said he was shocked to learn of the size of the expenditures. He particularly took issue with the amount of money paid to the expert panel, calling such fees "absurd."
"I'm sick to my stomach that these expenditures are now thrust upon the city when all this time we have been told by the administration that we had the greatest fire department in the Southeast," he said. "The taxpayers unfortunately once again are going to have to bear the brunt of these expenditures because we have to fix the Fire Department to keep our citizens safe."
Others defended the spending as necessary given the enormity of the tragedy, and the identified need for changes.
"This is the worst tragedy that has hit this city in modern times," Councilwoman Yvonne Evans said. "The taxpayers expect us to do this."
She said it's easy for critics to assail city leaders for not paying for such upgrades before the fire. She said council members have always been responsive to public safety issues and that the Fire Department never asked for more money. "I feel quite sure that if the chief and his people felt they were lacking in some areas, they would have requested it."
Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson said she feels the administration has kept council informed about the issues, and council members can always request more information if they have questions. The best course for City Council is to avoid knee-jerk reactions and stay focused on making sure the Fire Department gets the help it needs, she said.
"According to national experts, we learned there were some things that were out of sync," she said. "Our duty now as council members is to make it right, and unfortunately, to make it right involves spending money."
Henry Howard, a retired fire chief from Vallejo, Calif., has served on state and national fire safety committees. Howard said the money spent by the city on the Routley panel was well within what would be expected for a review of this scope. The 272-page investigative report the panel prepared on the fire is a thorough document that will likely be used by fire departments across the land. He said the report was worth every penny the city spent on it. "They did their job, no doubt about it."