No decision yet on fire hydrant fight between Fellsmere, County

By Debbie Carson, Online Editor

FELLSMERE – No decision has been made in the case of the City of Fellsmere versus Indian River County regarding the $12,800 upkeep costs of the city’s fire hydrants.

A decision is expected sometime after Nov. 9, as both the city and county will have until then to provide further evidence to Special Master John E. Banks.

City Attorney Warren Dill asked Banks to rule in the city’s favor and order the county to pay a little more than $24,000, which would cover the fire hydrants’ maintenance, late fees, interest, attorney fees and other costs associated with the case.

The judge said after an hour and half of testimony that he would make his decision once he had adequate time to go through the record and additional materials. How long that might take is unknown.

Dill argued that the case is strictly code enforcement related and that the county’s argument based on state law is outside the special master’s purview.

The argument, Dill said, is “really a red herring” to confuse the issue.

“It’s difficult to see how the county could not be charged with violating code,” Dill said during his closing statement, explaining that the county is a city water customer that has not paid its bill.

County Attorney William Collins cited a state statute that has been on the books since 2007, which states, in part, that the owner of the utility is the one who is responsible for maintaining the fire hydrants.

Because it is the city’s water utility, it should be the city’s responsibility for maintaining the hydrants, Collins said.

The City of Fellsmere agrees – both Dill and Fellsmere’s Finance and Utility Director Larry Napier said that the city does maintain the hydrants.

However, Napier said during his testimony that there is nothing in the county-cited state law that prohibits the city from passing on the expense of maintenance to the customer, in this case, the county.

Collins took issue with Napier’s determination that the county is a customer, saying that the true customers are the city’s residents, who benefit from the hydrants. He said that Indian River County Fire Rescue is only an intermediary, using the hydrants when a customer/resident needs it.

Napier argued that residents are not customers in regard to the hydrants because they cannot directly use the hydrants.

At one point during the hearing, Dill asked Napier to read a letter into the record from the county addressed to the city. That letter, in part, read that the county was looking for ways to trim its costs and as such asked the City of Fellsmere for its accounting of the fees for the hydrants.

Also during his testimony, Napier turned the questioning around on Collins, asking him why the county has paid its bill for the last 14 years if it wasn’t proper.

Collins responded by saying that the county only this summer became aware of the state law regarding responsibility. Once the county became aware, it changed its policy.

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