The City of Beaufort/Town of Port Royal Fire Department Station 4 on Robert Smalls Parkway, Beaufort, as seen Tuesday, Feb. 8. The property was recently purchased by the City of Beaufort for $3 million. Photo by Tony Kukulich/The Island News

Fire station purchase ruffles feathers in Port Royal

 By Tony Kukulich 

The City of Beaufort’s 2021 purchase of a fire station located in the Town of Port Royal was the one point of contention between the two municipalities during an otherwise mundane joint council meeting late last month. 

The city closed on the purchase of Station 4 – located at 571 Robert Smalls Parkway and operated by the City of Beaufort and Town of Port Royal Fire Department – just prior to the end of last year. Port Royal officials said they were not included in the negotiations for the station’s purchase. 

“Initially the deal was that we had a long-term lease,” explained City of Beaufort Mayor Stephen Murray. “It allowed us to get into it fast. It was turnkey. Given the conditions at the time, it made a lot of sense for us. The owner approached us and made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, so to speak. … We think it was in the best interest of the city.”

According to Port Royal Town Manager Van Willis, the city has the final say in capital purchases related to the operation of the fire department, but also has an obligation to discuss capital purchases with the town.

“It was a little bit of a surprise to find out that you were buying the station within our town limits,” said Town of Port Royal Mayor Joe DeVito during the Jan. 27 joint council meeting. “That’s just the reality of it. I’m not saying we could have afforded to, but I would have liked the opportunity to say, ‘This is a deal. Do you guys want to own the capital?’ because it’s in our town limits.”

The city paid $3 million for the property, and financed the purchase at 1.5 percent over 15 years. Calling the deal a win for taxpayers, Kathleen Williams, communications/marketing manager for the City of Beaufort, said the purchase is expected to save $3 million over 30 years when compared to the lease agreement that was previously in place.

Murray offered an apology and stated he wasn’t aware the deal hadn’t been discussed with Port Royal officials.

“The deal is happening is what we found out,” DeVito said. “I’m not sure that we could’ve split it – maybe if we did some things. I would have loved the opportunity, politically, to discuss that one. I just think it’s important.”

Williams asserted in an email to The Island News that the purchase of Station 4 had been discussed publicly.

“The city was very open about this process and brought it up during city council meetings months ago,” she said. “We have very good relations with the Town of Port Royal, and are very proud of our joint fire department.”

Despite contention over the station purchase, officials from both municipalities praised the fire department’s cost-effective delivery of high-level service under its multi-jurisdictional service approach.

“We have the model of what a fire department should be,” DeVito said. I’ll state that every time. The rest should be looking at what we did with the City of Beaufort and the Town of Port Royal in that model. There’s no question.”

The purchase of the station is not expected to impact the department’s day-to-day operations in any way.

The City of Beaufort and Town of Port Royal Fire Department operates out of four manned fire stations strategically located throughout both jurisdictions to minimize incident response times. The department utilizes both career and volunteer firefighters and maintains a roster of 53 uniformed career personnel and an average of 25 volunteers.

Joint council meetings between Beaufort and Port Royal have occurred for approximately 20 years. The Jan. 27 meeting was the first joint council meeting since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He and his wife enjoy exploring their new home state. He can also frequently be found playing bass guitar with a couple of local bands. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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Beaufort City Councilman Mitch Mitchell presents Bernice Wilson, of Port Royal, with a commemorative lapel pin