Columbia mayor calls for S.C. cities to end or reduce sprinkler tap fees

COLUMBIA -- Columbia and other S.C. cities should eliminate or greatly reduce water connection fees for businesses that install fire sprinklers in the wake of the deaths of nine firefighters in a Charleston blaze, Mayor Bob Coble said Monday.

"This is an important lesson we have learned from the Charleston tragedy, and cities need to act quickly," Coble told The State newspaper.

Coble plans to ask Columbia City Council when it meets Wednesday to order city staff to write a proposal that would eliminate or reduce connection fees also known as tap fees for commercial customers served by the city's water system.

Coble also has asked the Municipal Association of South Carolina to survey other S.C. cities about the types and amounts of fees charged by those municipalities for fire sprinklers.

Howard Duvall, the group's executive director, plans to discuss the survey with city leaders at the association's annual convention this week in Greenville.

"There are a lot of things we're learning that, until this tragedy in Charleston, hadn't been on the tip of our tongues," Duvall said.

Nine Charleston firefighters died June 18 in a fire at a furniture store and warehouse that didn't have sprinklers. It was the nation's worst firefighter tragedy since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City.

Fewer than 3 percent of about 7,500 locations inspected annually by the city of Columbia have sprinklers, according to city fire department records.

City Councilman Kirkman Finlay said Monday that, although he favors safety measures that would help prevent similar tragedies, he questioned whether the city could absorb the cost of eliminating connection fees for sprinklers.

"I don't understand how we simultaneously can make the argument that we're going to cut fees and increase service," he said.

Finlay said he probably would favor offering tax credits to businesses that install sprinklers. Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, has proposed tax credits in a bill he plans to introduce next year that would require sprinklers in all commercial and industrial buildings statewide.

Coble said lawmakers might be more inclined to enact Thomas' bill if cities first would eliminate or greatly reduce their tap fees.

Bill Dukes, founder of the popular Blue Marlin restaurant in the Vista, said Monday he didn't think Coble's proposal would help his business much. The restaurant, which doesn't have sprinklers and isn't required to have them under current city code, was damaged heavily in a 2001 fire.

"I've already paid the tap fees," he said. "There would be no incentive there for me."

Finlay questioned whether businesses that already have sprinklers should be entitled to rebates.

Columbia's water and sewer fund -- the city's biggest money-maker -- took in nearly $100 million in revenues in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Possible $3M in losses

How much the city would lose by eliminating water connection fees is unclear, though the loss could total close to $3 million based on current rates and meter sales last fiscal year.

"Where are we going to make up the $3 million?" Finlay said. "I'm a little amazed how quickly we are moving to do something we don't totally understand yet."

Coble suggested a reduction in tap fees could allow the city to recover the cost of materials only.

Council raised water and sewer connection fees, effective last week, for customers in the city and Richland County.

The rates hadn't been raised in about 20 years, and the increases were steep.

Businesses that are required to or voluntarily install fire sprinklers typically use four- or six-inch water lines, said John Dooley, Columbia's utilities and engineering director. Large manufacturing plants often use 10-inch lines.

The old tap rates for those lines ranged from about $4,500 to $10,000, Dooley said. The new rates range from $17,990 to $58,550, he said, though only a few businesses need the largest lines.

The city water service last fiscal year sold a total of about 95 meters to businesses that installed water lines of four, six or eight inches, Dooley said. He said most of those businesses probably installed fire sprinklers.

Based on those sales, the city would have collected a total of $590,000 in tap fees under the old rates -- $2.6 million under the new schedule.

Columbia doesn't charge separate impact fees to install sprinklers as does Charleston, Coble said. That city's water system currently charges as much as $116,700 in total impact and connection fees, according to published reports.

Water system officials there have said they plan to drop the connection fees.