By Debbie Carson, Online Editor
FELLSMERE – The battle over more than $12,000 in fire hydrant upkeep in Fellsmere could come to an end this afternoon when a Special Magistrate takes up the case at 5 p.m. in Fellsmere City Hall.
The City of Fellsmere contends that Indian River County owes the city more than $12,000 for maintaining the city’s fire hydrants, which they say only Indian River County Fire Rescue uses.
Jason Brown, the county’s budget director, has argued 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 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.
Whoever the special magistrate does not favor in his ruling has the right to appeal the special master’s decision to circuit court. The hearing is open to the public.
The County Attorney’s Office sent an e-mailed and faxed notice to both Fellsmere and Vero Beach this summer, notifying the cities that the county would no longer pay them for the maintenance of their fire hydrants.
According to Fellsmere Finance Director Larry Napier, maintenance fees include general maintenance, flushing the water lines, and reserving water capacity – a fee that equals $225 per hydrant.
Brown has 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.
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.
Brown said 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.
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.
The county has been paying for the fire hydrants since 1993, when the City of Fellsmere established its water utility.
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.