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Safety: Murrells Inlet FD improves insurance rating

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Just 2 points kept the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District from earning the top rating issued by the Insurance Services Office.

The district improved from a Class 3 to a Class 2 rating in a review completed last year and announced this week. It ranks in the top 3 percent of fire services nationwide. The change, which takes effect May 1, should be worth savings of 5 to 10 percent on fire insurance premiums, said Al Hitchcock, who chairs the board of the fire district.

The result comes a little more than a month before voters in the fire district will go to the polls in a referendum to decide whether to raise the tax rate from 10 to 14 mills. That would equal a $16 annual increase for an owner-occupied home valued at $100,000.

Fire Chief Norman Knight said the tax increase is vital in order for the district to keep its current rating and advance to a Class 1. “It’s certainly going to be needed now to maintain the rating,” he said.

ISO’s Public Protection Classification Program evaluates fire departments, their water supply and their emergency communications. The department score accounts for 50 percent of the rating. Water accounts for 40 percent. Out of a total of 100 points, Murrells Inlet-Garden City earned 88.

Water supply and communications are out of the district’s control, but Knight sees areas to improve more within the fire department, which earned 39.75 out of 50 points in the review. The district wants to build a new station on McDowell Shortcut. The higher tax rate will pay for expanded service. “There’s a very good possibility if we had that station up and running we would have gotten a [Class] 1,” he said.

Only 60 fire departments in the nation are rated Class 1.

While pleased with the result, Knight said there is some concern that residents in the district, which covers portions of Georgetown and Horry counties, will think it can do just fine without the tax increase. “This whole referendum has never been about getting that ISO rating down,” he said. “It’s about keeping up with the pace of growth, the number of calls we have to react to.”

Hitchcock pointed out that the new rating was achieved by a department with one of the lowest tax rates in the state and that it had to draw on its reserves to cover a $900,000 deficit from 2013 through 2015.

“Raising the cap is a necessity if we want to keep this rating,” he said. “If we don’t get our cap raised, we’re going to go backward.”

The current rate was set by the legislature in 1992. The fire district board sought an increase through local legislators, but it was held up in 2013 by Rep. Stephen Goldfinch and in 2014 by a veto from Gov. Nikki Haley.

Sen. Ray Cleary got an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office in September saying the district board could raise the rate with approval from voters. The referendum is scheduled for March 17.

Hitchcock said he hasn’t heard of any active opposition. His concern is that people will assume the measure will pass and stay home on election day.

“We feel like we have a lot of supporters,” he said. “We hope they go to the polls.”

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