AP NEWS

Fire station, sewage plant in Florence budget proposal

May 5, 2019

FLORENCE, S.C. – The budget recommended to the Florence City Council includes plans to construct a new fire station and build a new wastewater treatment facility.

City Manager Drew Griffin said the balanced budget contained revenues and expenses of $92.848 million with the general fund budget at $38.489 million. Griffin is expected to provide more information on the amount being spent by fund at the second budget meeting to be held later.

On Monday afternoon, the city council was presented with an overview by department of the recommendations made by staff and the challenges in building the 2019-20 fiscal year budget.

New fire station

Among the recommendations is the construction of a new fire station near the intersection of Ebenezer Road and West Palmetto Street.

“For the last several years, I’ve stood up in front of you and I’ve said, ‘We’re growing, we’re growing, we’re growing. We need to start preparing. It’s going to have an effect. We need to start preparing,’” Fire Chief Randy Osterman said. “Well, today I’m going to tell you it’s time to prepare and implement just so I can change up my song a little bit.”

Osterman said the city’s population had increased and the fire department’s calls had also increased. He added that last year the fire department responded to 30% more calls than the previous year.

The goal of the fire department, he said, was to efficiently use resources to provide an effective response to everyone residing within the city and maintain an Insurance Services Office [ISO] Class 1 rating.

Insurance companies generally require that communities be rated on the level and sufficiency of fire-protection services available. The rating, using data and analytics and response times, is provided by the Insurance Services Office, a subsidiary of Verisk Analytics. The office rates communities on a scale of 1 to 11, with the lower number being more desirable and resulting in lower insurance premiums.

“So as of today, we have the majority of the city that falls within that response frame that we talked about,” Osterman said. “However, because of annexation and growth, we’re starting to exceed those areas.”

The majority of the growth is happening in West Florence, Osterman said.

“We have reached our limit currently and it’s going to necessitate that we do something,” Osterman said. “That something was to look at where we should place fire stations to meet the needs of West [Florence]. Hopefully, though once we do this, we’ve got it covered from now unto eternity.”

The city’s recommendation is to relocate the Ben Dozier Fire Station currently near the intersection of David McLeod Boulevard and West Palmetto Street to a location further West along the Hoffmeyer Road area, which would better use the city’s manpower and equipment.

In addition, because of the annexation northwest and west of the Dozier Fire Station, there’s no way for the fire department to cover the area with a single station, Osterman said. So, the city staff has proposed the construction of a fire station near the intersection of Ebenezer Road and West Palmetto Street.

To relocate the Dozier Fire Station, the city has estimated a cost of $2.5 million not including land acquisition.

To build the new fire station, the city’s estimate is $2.5 million, not including land acquisition to construct the station, plus an additional $1.1 million to purchase the equipment and hire the 12 firefighters to man the station. The new station would cost around $650,000 per year in salaries and benefits.

City Manager Drew Griffin and finance director Thomas Chandler explained to the council how the city would be able to pay for the fire stations without a millage increase.

Nine years ago, Griffin said, the city issued a general obligation bond to purchase fire and sanitation equipment. That bond will be paid back by 2025, Griffin said. Under this plan the city would refinance those bonds.

The city has spoken to a group interested in purchasing the current location of the Dozier Fire Station, which should generate cash for the city to begin the process.

“We are also in the position where we can do a set-aside of cash for these projects,” Griffin said. “Some of you remember that I mentioned we got some FEMA funding back from previous years; we can put that into a fund where we can help supplement this growth that we are seeing without borrowing.”

With low interest rates, Griffin said, the city’s payment on the bonds would likely decrease.

Griffin also said the cost of additional personnel was something the city was going to have work on.

A proposed schedule has the city beginning to design the new stations in January 2020, construction and financing beginning in June 2020, and operations beginning in October 2021.

Mayor Pro Tempore Frank J. “Buddy” Brand asked Griffin and Osterman if the proposed schedule was fast enough to keep the city’s current ISO Class 1 rating.

Griffin responded that yes, as long as the plan is in place, the rating should be fine.

Brand also asked if the city was going to use a recently built fire station in South Florence as a model.

The answer was yes but with some minor changes.

Wastewater facility

The growth in West Florence is also taxing the city’s wastewater system.

Currently, the city’s main wastewater plant is in East Florence, meaning that wastewater from West Florence must be pumped from the west side of town to the east side. The main line is in Jefferies Creek, called the Jefferies Creek Interceptor.

The Timmonsville wastewater system, run by the city of Florence, also has a plant but the city is unable to connect the two systems.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control [DHEC] is pushing the city to relocate the interceptor from Jefferies Creek to a location on Second Loop Road. This project is expected to cost around $35 million.

Michael Hemingway, the city’s utilities director, said the city had looked a variety of other options.

One option was to improve the Timmonsville facility, which would cost around $24 million.

Another option, recommended by the city staff, was to construct a way to connect the new growth of west Florence area to the Timmonsville plant temporarily and then in a few years build a new wastewater facility to handle west Florence and Timmonsville. This plan would lessen the flow in the Jefferies Creek Interceptor, which would save the city around $30 million assuming a $12 million per millions of gallons of water not going into the interceptor and that 2.4 million gallons would be diverted from the interceptor.

“Now, new plants are expensive, but you’re getting ready to spend $35 million on a pump-around solution,” Griffin said.

A new plant would cost around $55 million to $60 million.

Mayor Stephen J. Wukela said the city would be saving enough money by lessening the flow in Jefferies Creek over time and by implementing a radio water meter reading system.

“What have been presented with is two issues with utilities that are very similar,” Wukela said. “We’ve got where we’re paying a lot of meter readers to go out and create a history for the entire system because of the old meters but the new technology is very expensive.”

The $10 million cost new meters would be installed over the next three years and paid back by the city in nine years.

Wukela added that the new meters would be a cost-effective and efficient way to provide better service to the customers.

“Because we are effectively pumping waste from the west side of town to the east side, we go through this Jefferies Creek Interceptor,” Wukela continued. “This creates problems. DHEC is not going to let it remain in its current situation for very long because we’re pumping a lot of waste through it, because of the growth throughout the west side of town, and because of the intrusion of beavers.”

The cost of moving the interceptor is $35 million, something the city must pay regardless.

“So the inventive solution that staff has created is why don’t you not spend that $35 million,” Wukela said. “Why don’t you build another plant on the west side of town? Why don’t you improve that Timmonsville plant?”

Wukela said the city would save $59 million with this method.