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City's fire hydrant rates unusually high, survey shows

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A survey of fire hydrant costs and responsibilities in various middle Tennessee cities shows that Shelbyville pays more than other communities, while some pay nothing at all.

But the city's utility manager says that a private act made their system separate from the city, which isn't the case in many other towns across the state.

During last week's study session, city manager Jay Johnson explained to the city council that the Shelbyville Water Board recently approved a meeting with him to discuss a $10.30 fire hydrant monthly charge billed to the city, which they termed as "fair."

With 1,123 functioning hydrants billed each month, it would mean that the city would pay $138,803 annually to the water system. Johnson said that the fee was "substantially above any other city in middle Tennessee."

Fee basis

According to a letter to utility manager David Crowell from Johnson, the utility's charter contains no reference to fire protection for the water system due to the "unique Charter relationship between Shelbyville Power System and the City," which is the basis for the fee.

Crowell explained to the T-G that the utility's charter came about from a private act from the state legislature which establishes that they operate separately from the city. The way the city is connected is that they appoint the power board, and then that group sets the rates.

The private act says that the utility is to charge the city "for services rendered," Crowell said. He also said that Johnson is correct that the charter does not refer to fire protection, but services.

City charges

A survey of the costs and responsibilities drawn up by Johnson shows that the fee for Shelbyville would fully cover all water flow, maintenance and replacement, with the water system conducting the flow tests.

Tullahoma pays $132,000 -- $125 a year for each of 1,100 hydrants. That contract with the Tullahoma Utility Board is currently under review. Johnson told the T-G he had mistakenly given out a lower figure for Tullahoma's fee when asked about the topic last week.

Next highest on the list is Brentwood, which pays $100,000 through a general fund transfer to the water fund. That city's water department handles labor and material, contracts for new or replacement hydrants and also covers water flows for fires and tests.

Winchester pays only $30,000 each year for 583 hydrants, which comes out of that town's fire department budget. Fayetteville pays $21,000 annually, and the water system there does maintenance and repairs, while the fire department conduct flows tests each year.

The city of Franklin only pays their water system $5,000 a year for hydrants, which is a general fund line item for routine maintenance by their fire department, while the water system bears all costs dealing with repairs.

Different charters

But Gallatin, Pulaski, Columbia, Murfreesboro, Manchester, Lebanon and Hendersonville pay no fee for their fire hydrants, with different responsibilities meted out in each city.

Crowell stated that many of the municipalities Johnson surveyed have water and sewer systems that operate directly under city councils, while Shelbyville's is separate.

"There are very few set up by private act of the state ... a lot of them are set up by city charter, and they develop a utility board from that, but ours is pretty specific," he said.

Gallatin's public utility does all the maintenance and repair for their system, while Pulaski's water fund assumes all responsibilities for hydrants and replacement equipment. The water department conducts the flow tests and no costs are paid out of the city's general fund.

Columbia's fire department does the general maintenance on the hydrants, Murfreesboro's water system maintains and repairs their hydrants, while the fire department there conducts annual flow tests, as does the city of Manchester.

In Lebanon, maintenance and flow tests are done by the water system, and in Hendersonville, the water department covers all repairs and maintenance, while the fire department pays for new hydrants if required.

Shared tasks?

One idea discussed by the city council last week was to have the fire department conduct the maintenance and flow tests. Crowell said it would lower the fee by some $50,000 per year.

"At this point, I don't think the discussion have gone far enough for them to do the maintenance on that since it is a water system asset," Crowell explained, saying there "were concerns" about letting someone else do the work, "but it could be an option."

"They have been discussed, but not decided," Crowell said about the concept, adding they the board would like to sit back down with the city manager and discuss the issue further.

"We'll work to resolve it with the city," he said. "It's not going to be a major issue to come to a consensus."