HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - Employees for Hilton Head Island who know Spanish will soon make an additional $1,200 a year.
The program, which goes into effect later this year, is meant to help people ranging from emergency crews to building permit officers better communicate with the region's growing Hispanic population.
Critics of the program say it eliminates another reason for immigrants to learn English with some of the harshest detractors asking why the town is catering to illegal immigrants.
But Hilton Head Island officials said the policy is pragmatic.
It wouldn't be worth it to have to hire an interpreter for code-enforcement officers needing to tell someone they were cutting down a tree improperly, officials said.
Also, emergency workers can't refuse to treat someone who doesn't speak English, and state law requires interpreters in courtrooms, Mayor Tom Peeples said.
"I don't think you can stick your head in the sand (and say), 'We're not going to give you service if you're here dying of a heart attack and you can't explain to us what your symptoms are,'" Peeples said.
Peeples does agree with the critics who say the program shouldn't have been extended outside of emergency workers. Beaufort County has a similar program only for law enforcement officers.
But the mayor said Town Council doesn't like to micromanage the operations of Town Hall.
Municipal governments often are forced into short-term solutions to deal with growing populations who speak a different language, University of South Carolina political science professor Blease Graham said.
The program has generated a lot of interest in the community. At a Town Council meeting last week, Fabia Kendall, who said she didn't know a word of English when her family came to America from Italy, told council members her family didn't expect to encounter government workers speaking anything other than English.
"Your incentive plan treats this issue with little or no respect for the obligations that come with legal immigration, and completely sidesteps the issue of illegal immigration. It is just plain wrong and an insult to all of those who came to this country legally and properly to improve their way of life," Kendall said to applause.