S.C. House speaker to call for tax credits for fire sprinklers

Charleston, Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., tragedies prompt plans for bill

COLUMBIA -- There is a growing movement in South Carolina to make it easier to install fire sprinklers in businesses and homes in after the tragedies this year in Charleston and Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell said Tuesday he plans to introduce legislation that would provide tax credits to businesses and possibly home developers to encourage installation of sprinklers.

"The fires have brought to everybody's attention how important that is," said the Charleston Republican, who holds the top position in the S.C. House.

No state provides tax credits for fire sprinklers, though Alaska allows for a reduction in a structure's assessed valuation if sprinklers are installed, said John A. Viniello, president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association.

"You would be the first in the nation to lead the way," Viniello said Tuesday. "No one questions whether (fire sprinklers) work. ... It's like having a cure for polio and not using it."

Harrell said he has discussed the tax credit with Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston. He said companion bills likely would be introduced in both chambers after the Legislature convenes in January.

Efforts to reach McConnell on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Top officials with the Municipal Association of South Carolina, Hospitality Association of South Carolina and Home Builders Association of South Carolina told The State they support tax credits for fire sprinklers.

"The bottom line is, it saves lives," said Howard Duvall, the municipal association's executive director.

Duvall and Tom Sponseller, the hospitality association president, said their respective groups would oppose a separate proposal by state Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, that would require fire sprinklers in all commercial buildings, no matter what the age.

"It's the right and the best thing to do," Thomas told The State recently. "We should be the first in the nation, to make sure this doesn't happen again to us."

Thomas said his bill would provide for tax credits, which, when combined with possible mandated reductions in insurance premiums, should keep affected businesses out of a "negative (financial) situation."

But Sponseller said a requirement to install sprinklers in all commercial buildings "could put some businesses out of business."

"Our opinion is that the tax credit will be the single biggest motivation to get a business to (install sprinklers)," he said.

Thomas, chairman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, plans to hold a public hearing on the issue Dec. 10 at 11 a.m. in the Gressette Building on the Statehouse grounds.

Thomas first proposed his bill after the June 18 furniture store blaze that killed nine Charleston firefighters the nation's worst firefighting tragedy since the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. The building didn't have fire sprinklers, nor was it required to under state law.

After a 2004 Greenville hotel fire that killed six guests, Thomas unsuccessfully pushed for a law requiring sprinklers in all hotels and motels in the state. He was fiercely opposed then by Charleston hotel operators, who contended it was too expensive and too difficult to install sprinklers in many of their historic buildings.

Generally, most older commercial buildings statewide are exempt from building code requirements to install fire sprinklers. Homes whether new or old typically aren't required to have sprinklers.

The issue of fire sprinklers in homes has taken on new urgency since the Oct. 28 fire at a beach house in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., that killed six USC students and one Clemson student. The house had working smoke detectors but no fire sprinklers.

At a May hearing in Rochester, N.Y., home builder groups helped to narrowly defeat a proposal that would have required fire sprinklers in new homes. Cost was cited as an issue.

The average cost of installing fire sprinklers in a 2,400-square-foot home is about $17,000; for every $1,000 in added cost to a new home, about 250,000 potential buyers are lost, according to information from the Home Builders Association of South Carolina.

"We would embrace having incentives" to reduce costs, Mark Nix, the association's executive officer, said Tuesday.

It costs, on average, about $2.75 a square foot to install sprinklers in a new restaurant or store, and about $3.85 a square foot to install systems in renovated buildings, according to the S.C. Fire Sprinkler Association. One-time tap and meter fees can run close to $30,000, depending on the municipality, according to association figures.

Duvall said his organization would support tax credits that would apply to both tap fees and installation costs. He said three existing state laws covering renovations of historic properties, abandoned textile mills and "big-box" retail buildings could be used as models.

Those laws provide either income tax, property tax or license tax credits.

He said his organization also would support tax credits to home developers, explaining that fire sprinklers would help ease insurance requirements for "standby water capacity," such as fire hydrants and larger-size waterlines.

"If you're able to put in fire sprinklers and not put up a fire station that costs $2 million, you're saving tax dollars," said Viniello of the National Fire Sprinkler Association.