COLUMBIA -- Gov. Mark Sanford has vetoed legislation providing tax breaks to home and business owners who install fire sprinklers -- a move Columbia's fire chief says he plans to fight.
In a letter late Wednesday to S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, Sanford said although "we applaud the bill's intent to reduce fire deaths and damage, it should come as no surprise that we are vetoing this legislation."
The veto comes as firefighters statewide are preparing to commemorate the one-year anniversary of a Charleston furniture-store blaze that killed nine firefighters.
"We were under the impression that he was going to sign this," Columbia Fire Chief Bradley Anderson said Thursday. "It is a big setback, but we are certainly going to work at achieving an override (of the veto)."
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Sen. David Thomas, R-Greenville, who first proposed mandating sprinklers in all hotels after a 2004 Greenville hotel fire that killed six guests, called Sanford's reasoning for the veto "flawed."
"Of all the issues we could deal with, I think this is one of the most critical ones," he said. "The primary reason for the existence of government ... is to protect citizens' lives."
Thomas said he believes lawmakers will override the veto when they reconvene June 25. Anderson said he plans to help mobilize firefighting and sprinkler trade groups to push for the override.
The June 18, 2007, fire at the Sofa Super Store in Charleston was the nation's worst firefighting tragedy since Sept. 11, 2001.
The fire-sprinkler issue took on even more urgency last year after an Oct. 28 fire at a beach house in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., that killed six USC students and one Clemson student.
Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said Thursday that although the N.C. and Charleston fires were "unfortunately tragic," it would be "unfortunate if someone chose to politicize both of those tragedies."
"We're not opposed to the idea of fire sprinklers, and we're not opposed to the idea of offering tax incentives for fire sprinklers," Sawyer said. "We are opposed to how this particular piece of legislation goes about accomplishing that goal."
The compromise legislation would give local governments the option of providing a 25 percent property tax credit to property owners for the cost of installing fire sprinklers. The credit would apply to all "direct expenses" excluding tap fees.
In addition, the state would offer a matching 25 percent state income tax credit, though only if the property tax credit is offered.
The potential total 50 percent tax break, Sanford said in his letter Wednesday to Harrell, "creates a taxpayer-funded subsidy."
"It has been our position that taxpayers should represent the minority of investment in additions to a privately held concern like a hotel, restaurant or warehouse," he said. "This bill would involve the taxpayer joining as an equal partner."
Efforts Thursday to reach Harrell, R-Charleston, were unsuccessful. Harrell's bill initially offered tax credits of 80 percent for fire-sprinkler installation with a $50,000 cap.
Sawyer said Thursday the compromise legislation, which cleared the House last week, likely would have a larger negative impact on tax revenues than earlier estimates predicted. He also said the law, if enacted, could result in lawsuits by property owners in municipalities that declined to offer property tax credits.
Anderson said the compromise legislation would encourage retrofitting of sprinklers in homes and businesses, explaining it wouldn't apply to places that already are required by law to install them.
He pointed out that the structures in the fatal Charleston, Greenville and Ocean Isle Beach fires weren't required to have sprinklers.
In the Columbia area from 1991 through 2002, fire sprinklers would have saved 55 lives in residential fires, prevented injuries to 246 firefighters and cut total property losses by an estimated $56 million, Anderson told lawmakers in a January hearing.
"It got watered down," Anderson said Thursday about the vetoed bill. "But we still ended up with something that would have a very positive impact."