County offers to put Fellsmere’s hydrant fees into escrow

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — It could be several months before a panel of judges hear the county’s appeal over its disagreement with Fellsmere on who owes for the upkeep of fire hydrants — and in the meantime, fines could mount up at a rate of $900 a month.

County Attorney William Collins asked the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday to approve paying the fees the City of Fellsmere says it is owed into an escrow account to keep those fines from accruing.

However, the City of Fellsmere does not appear eager to accept the funds into escrow. The commissioners unanimously approved County Attorney Collins’s request to put money in an escrow account, contingent on the city’s approval. 

City Manager Jason Nunemaker said after the board meeting that he’s of the opinion that unless there is some form of mandate that would compel the city to have to accept the monies into escrow, the city isn’t interested.

Nunemaker said that if the county had paid the city when Commissioner Wesley Davis asked about it earlier this month, the city would have accepted it as a good faith gesture.

Now, Nunemaker said, the county is only trying to avoid paying fines related to the code enforcement case.

City Attorney Warren Dill said that he has since notified the county that the city is not agreeable to the payment because it does not comply with the special master’s order.

That order requires the county to pay the city, not put the funds in an account that the city cannot make use of, Dill said.

Collins told commissioners that if the appeal favored the county, the county would get its money back from the escrow account. If not, he said, the city would receive the funds.

How much, exactly, would be placed into the account is not currently known.

The county owes $12,871.04 for fire hydrant maintenance, according to a ruling by Special Master John Banks, who oversees the city’s code enforcement cases.

On top of that, the city contends the county should also pay another nearly $12,000 to cover filing fees, attorney’s fees and other costs associated with the case.

Collins said he would have to check with either Fellsmere City Attorney Warren Dill or the Special Master to find out how much needs to be placed into escrow so that the county does not rack up the monthly in fines.

As for the appeal, Collins said after the Tuesday meeting that his office would be filing a notice to appeal in the next couple days. Once all the evidence in the case is filed from both sides, the Circuit Court’s chief administrative judge will assign the appeal to a panel of three judges.

That panel meets only a couple times a year, according to Collins, so it will be several months before the case goes to court.

The City of Fellsmere has argued that the county is a water customer of the city’s water utility because it is the county that provides fire rescue service, which taps into the fire hydrants. And, as such, it is on the county to pay for maintaining the fire hydrants in the city and ensuring adequate water capacity at the water plant.

The county has countered the argument, citing state law that states, in part, that the owner of the utility is the one who is responsible for maintaining the fire hydrants.

County Attorney Collins also has argued that the city’s code does not apply to the county and therefore the county could not be held in violation.

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