By Debbie Carson, Online Editor
FELLSMERE — The City of Fellsmere is gearing up for a battle with Indian River County officials over $12,000 it says the county still owes for the maintenance of its fire hydrants.The county says it doesn’t have to pay and cites a state law that says that municipalities are responsible for the maintenance of the hydrants when the hydrants are on city land and hooked up to city water.Fellsmere’s city attorney, Warren Dill, is crafting a notice to the county, telling officials there that they have 10 days to pay its balance in full or prepare to go before the city’s special master, who rules on code enforcement and other such legal issues.
“We’re treating them like any other customer,” said Fellsmere Finance Director Larry Napier. The County Attorney’s Office sent an e-mailed and faxed notice to both Fellsmere and Vero Beach on Wednesday, notifying the cities that the county would no longer pay them for the maintenance of their fire hydrants.Napier argues that there is more to the fee that the county has to pay than just maintenance.
“Maintenance is just a minor part,” he said, explaining that there are also capacity and flushing that make up the $225 per hydrant fee.
The bill per hydrant breaks down as follows:
$53 for general maintenance
$121.50 for flushing
$51.50 for capital related cost (capacity)
County Budget Director Jason Brown said that it is uncommon for a municipality to charge for the capacity and flushing, saying that those costs are usually borne by the utility.
According to Napier, state law allows utilities (such as Fellsmere’s water utility) to charge for use. Indian River County Fire Rescue uses the Fellsmere fire hydrants and are, therefore, charged for the hydrants’ upkeep and water.
Brown argues that Fire Rescue is not the only user of hydrant, that construction companies, too, can – with permission – tap into the hydrants for their own uses.
The issue came up earlier this year after Fellsmere billed the county $225 per hydrant instead of the $170 per hydrant it charged last year.
The county asked Fellsmere for justification of its $170 per hydrant rate, Brown said. So, Fellsmere commissioned a rate study, which showed that the city was actually charging less than it should have been to cover its costs.
“They insisted,” Napier said of the county wanting a study. “They didn’t like the answer.”
“It was ridiculous,” Brown said of the rate study, explaining that, among other issues, the study was based on “unreasonable” assumptions.
One such assumption was a 75 percent “overhead” – administration. Brown said that the county has a 10.5 percent overhead and in his experience has seen some agencies with 15 and 20 percent overhead, but nothing remotely close to 75 percent.
“I hope they’re not that inefficient,” Brown said of the City of Fellsmere.
Brown further pointed out other issues with the city’s study, including a 10-mile round trip assumption for maintaining the fire hydrants.
“It’s not a very big city,” Brown said of Fellsmere, adding that he doubts that there are any two hydrants within the city that are 10 miles away from each other.
To justify its costs, Fellsmere looked to the Florida Administrative Code. The code allows up to $23.77 per month per hydrant to be charged for a 4-inch water line. Annually, the cost would be $285.30 per hydrant – $60 more than what Fellsmere is currently charging.
And, according to Napier, the city has a mixture of 4-, 6- and 8-inch water lines. The larger lines have a higher cost associated (due to increased water usage) in the code.
The county has been paying for the fire hydrants since 1993, when the City of Fellsmere established its water utility – on that, both Brown and Napier agree.
And since then, the bill has been paid without incident up until last year, when the county sent its payment 11 months late and with a request for justification, according to Napier.
Brown’s accounting differs. He said that the county had asked the city for justification on the $170 per hydrant rate prior to receiving the bill and that the county didn’t pay the bill while it waited on the rate study.
However, as the fiscal year began to wind down, the county, as an “act of good faith” paid up, based on the prior year’s figure 11 months later than would have been normal.
“We’re trying to be good stewards of the tax dollars” the county receives, Brown said.
Indian River County isn’t the only entity that is charged for the hydrants. There are 35 hydrants on private property that those property owners must pay for.
Napier said that if the private property owners were to not pay their bill, the city would shut off the development’s water.
Fellsmere won’t do that to the county’s fire hydrants for public safety reasons. And, even during the period of time that the city is not receiving funds from the county, Fellsmere will continue to maintain and flush and reserve water for the hydrants.
Napier said that the city would have preferred not to go the route of sending the 10-day notice to pay.
“They’re violating my ordinance,” he said. “I don’t know what else to do.”
If the county refuses to pay the remaining $12,800 owed on its balance, the issue will go to Fellsmere’s special master – a city judge type official – who handles such matters.
The losing party has the right to appeal the special master’s decision to circuit court.
“We don’t have to pay,” Brown said of the resolution he expects in the matter.
“We’re going to collect our money,” Napier said.