Shelbyville's city council wants city manager Jay Johnson to meet with the utilities manager, and perhaps the water board, to discuss fire hydrant fees they consider to be too high.
The issue was raised in early September when Johnson told the council that the water board had voted to charge a monthly fee of $10.30 for each fire hydrant in Shelbyville.
With 1,123 functioning hydrants billed each month, it would mean that the city would pay $138,803 annually to the water system.
Johnson told the council Tuesday that he was "not happy" with the Sept. 25 vote of the water board, where members decided that the fee for the hydrants and the rate charged was "reasonable." "I completely disagree with that," Johnson said.
"The fire hydrant fee we are being charged appears to be higher than any other city in middle Tennessee," Johnson said, adding that he had provided detailed questions to the utility about the fee in August.
Since the utility is an independent body, they can set the fee, refuse to change it "and tell me to sit down, shut up and go away," Johnson explained, but he said he wasn't going to do that "on the basis that the fee is reasonable."
Johnson said that Shelbyville citizens are paying the equivalent of three to four cents of the property tax rate just on hydrants, pointing out that the utility's own documents show they are only spending about $50,000 per year on hydrant maintenance, with the rest being "overhead and back costs."
If they city just paid the $50,000, it would only equal one penny of the tax rate, he added, saving $80,000 for the city which could go for storm water management or the purchase of two new police cars and related equipment, Johnson said.
Johnson said the council has three possible options: Drop the subject and accept the fee, adopt a resolution asking the water board to reconsider their decision or retain an independent consultant to analyze the factors comprising the rate charged to the city.
The proposed report would look at factors included in the rate calculation and an audit of the actual system expenses on fire hydrants.
Instead, the council suggested that Johnson sit down one more time with utility manager David Crowell, and perhaps the water board as well, to review the rate structure, compare them to the actual number "and see what it shows."
If it shows that the fee is reasonable, Johnson said he would "shut up" about the issue, but added that when communities twice the size of Shelbyville were paying less than they are, "there's a question here."
"This is like the Wizard of Oz movie -- what is behind the curtain?" Johnson asked. "Why are our rates so high compared to everybody else?"
Johnson also told the council that he was "perturbed" that the water board, "doesn't seem to take this issue seriously," noting that while the decision on the rates was made on Sept. 25, Johnson was not informed about the vote until Oct. 24, when he received the board's minutes.
In September, 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 city appoints the power board, and then that group sets the rates.
"This is a money issue," the city manager said, with Johnson and fire chief Ricky McConnell adding that the system is always quick about fixing any hydrant that isn't working properly, usually within a day or less.
Johnson also challenged council members to find a town in Tennessee the size of Shelbyville who were being charged higher fees.
"Many of the numbers are debatable," Johnson explained about the utility's figures. "I'm not saying they're wrong, just debatable."