Politics & Government

Funds meant to fix ‘unsafe’ fire station for SC military families now funding border wall

President Donald Trump will have nearly $11 million in additional funds to help construct a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out undocumented immigrants.

And, as a result, a South Carolina military community may have to wait longer to renovate a derelict fire station that no longer meets government safety and security requirements.

The Pentagon announced Wednesday that hundreds of pre-approved military construction projects were being raided for dollars to build the border wall. Among the 127 projects on the list, totaling $3.6 billion, is a $10.8 million plan to build a new fire station at Laurel Bay — a community for the families of the servicemembers stationed primarily at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

The road to replacing the money could now be filled with obstacles.

Pentagon officials said Congress could vote to replace that $3.6 billion diverted for the border wall in an upcoming government spending bill.

On Friday afternoon, Ken Farnaso, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., told The State that Scott had spoken with the White House and “it is his understanding that the Laurel Bay Fire Station will be funded next fiscal year and will finish on time as scheduled.

“There is, in effect, no actual loss of funds for the project,” Farnaso said.

However, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have not yet indicated they plan to backfill the money, even at the Trump administration’s request. Also, even if there is widespread support for replacing lost funds, the politics surrounding the controversial border wall could make compromise elusive.

In the meantime, the Laurel Bay community will have to wait for clarity on plans for its new fire station, whose construction was set to begin in April 2020.

According to a report obtained by The State that Deputy Assistant Navy Secretary James Balocki sent to Congress in October 2018, the need is dire.

An updated facility is crucial, said the Navy, to adequately serve 1,282 housing units, three schools, three family community centers, a child development center, a youth center, a shopping complex, a gas station and “several administrative, maintenance and support facilities.”

The existing fire station was built in 1959 as a chlorine injection station for the ground water wells to produce safe drinking water. “Minor repairs” have been made to the fire station over the last 50 years, according to the report, “but the facility has reached the end of its life expectancy.”

The current facility, the report says, “does not meet the minimum (Defense Department) facility size requirements” and is “not configured efficiently to respond to emergencies.”

In addition to no longer having enough “berthing space for the number of fire fighters and paramedics per shift required to meet manning standards” at Laurel Bay, the fire station also does not meet “minimum seismic structural requirements” placed upon most military structures, even those in areas unlikely to experience major earthquakes.

In the event of a “seismic event,” the report concludes, “complete structural collapse is probable ... causing death or major injury to emergency personnel, and thus preventing timely response” to the community.

South Carolina frequently experiences minor seismic events but the last report of a “moderate,” 4.1 magnitude quake was on February 14, 2014, in the Midlands.

The Navy told Congress in its report that if a new fire station is not built, “personnel assigned to Laurel Bay will continue to work from a significantly undersized and unsafe facility.”

Fate of funding unclear

South Carolinians have known for months that the fire station project was at risk of deferral: The Pentagon announced earlier this year that certain military construction projects would be eligible for postponement, and the Laurel Bay fire station was on that list.

Bill Bethea, the chairman of the South Carolina Military Base Task Force, told The State on Thursday he was “disappointed” but not entirely surprised by the news.

While the funding diversion was “not ideal,” he said he was grateful only one South Carolina initiative was in jeopardy, he said.

Bethea added he was confident the state’s two Republican U.S. senators, Lindsey Graham and Scott, would be successful in finding a way to reinstate the money for the project quickly.

Both lawmakers said back in February they were sure it would be as simple as Congress writing a line item for it into a government spending bill.

Scott reiterated that assurance on Friday after initially saying he had yet to hear directly from military representatives about the decision — a complaint shared by Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort officials and the staff of U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, the Democrat who represents the base.

Graham, however, was in Montenegro earlier in the week on official travel and could not be reached for comment.

A spokesman for S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who in February “had no reason to believe that planned construction projects in any of South Carolina’s military installations are in jeopardy of losing funding,” was also not responding to requests for comment this week as Hurricane Dorian passed through the state.

Democrats in the S.C. congressional delegation, in contrast, made their opinions known.

“I strongly oppose President Trump’s plan to pull funding from critical national security projects to fund a border wall, including over $10 million to replace the Laurel Bay Fire Station in Beaufort,” Cunningham said in a a statement Wednesday.

“The President’s decision to steal money from the military for his ineffective, wasteful border wall is a violation of the Constitution and undermines America’s safety and the military’s morale,” tweeted U.S. House Majority whip Jim Clyburn. “The House will continue to fight this egregious abuse of power.”

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.