Part III: How to pay for fire hydrants?
Is the hydrant rental expense justified?
Has the Fire District made a convincing case for the Town paying hydrant rental of over $18,000? If the Selectboard serious about being cost conscious, then it needs to take a hard look at this expense. So far, the Selectboard has not.
The Fire District thinks of itself as a water company serving 310 residences and 20 commercial businesses. For that customer base, charging customers for that fire hydrant infrastructure is a legitimate expense. See Part I .
Map Of Fire District Hydrants
What about properties outside of the Fire District, that are not customers? There are over 1300 residence and business parcels on the Grand List in Norwich. The Fire District covers an area somewhat larger than Inset 1 and 2 of the General Highway Map of Norwich. See map below. Why should non customers (Town taxpayers) pay a hydrant rental of 20%, when they are neither the primary nor intended beneficiaries of the 67 hydrants that serve a small part of Town?
Insets 1 and 2 of General Highway Map of Norwich are outlined in red
It is important to note that hydrant rental has no relationship with funding the fire department. which is paid by the Town.
Question: How do other towns and fire districts in Vermont address the issue of hydrant rental, when most residents do not get their water from the the fire district? That question was posed in Part I and the Selectboard should want to know.
A similar issue arose in the Village of Weston, Wisconsin in 2012. It decided that only customers should pay for hydrants because “the Village can no longer afford to artificially subsidize the [Water] Utility through the use of general property taxes.” The Village’s Talking Points Memo, the Village of Weston included this question and response:
I’m not on Public Water, but I do have hydrants near my house, will I still have to pay the fee? The public fire protection charge will only be collected from customers of the water utility within the Village of Weston. State law requires that if any non-utility customers are directly charged for PFP, then ALL non-utility customers must be charged. As a rule, our Fire Department indicates that the longest they can run a hose line is 1,000 feet. If you’re on the public water supply you’re generally within 500 feet of a fire hydrant. Although some residents outside the area served by the utility will be within 500 feet of a fire hydrant, the majority are not. Therefore non-utility customers do not benefit from the water utility’s public fire protection capabilities to the same degree as people served by the water utility. No method of billing Public Fire Protection will ever be perfect.
Other items the Selectboard may want to consider:
- Agreement: The Fire District says there is a long standing agreement for the Town to pay 20% of the hydrant budget. As observed in Part II-A , the 20% seems derivative, not expressed. The real terms of that “agreement” are not actually known because a written agreement has not yet surfaced. In addition, there is another agreement the Fire District does not mention - the agreement with the Town to repair its sidewalks before giving them to the Town. In 2015, the Fire District abandoned this agreement unilaterally.
- Fire Insurance: My local insurance agent said homeowners get a discount on insurance if they live within a 1000 feet of a Fire District hydrant. That is a monetary benefit not available to most of the Town.
- Hydrants Serving Town: The Fire District has 67 hydrants within its system. Selectboard member Flanders estimated that six or seven, approximately ten per cent, are accessible to SOME residents outside of the Fire District. See map above of hydrant locations. The Town also maintains a number of dry hydrants, the latest installed at 1285 Union Village Road in 2018.
- Firefighting benefits: In Part I, I surmised that running a tanker shuttle was a benefit to residents outside the Fire District. At the Fire District's suggestion, I emailed the Town's Fire Chief over a week ago to get his take on the topic but have not heard back. Should that be taken as a lack of support for paying hydrant rental or simply a less than high opinion of this blog? In Part II-B, the Fire District identified a number of benefits to the Town other than firefighting. The Selectboard needs to decide if the sum of these benefits should be compensable as hydrant rental of 20%. That is the question.
- Water Use: The hydrant rental issue is not about water use. The Fire Department pays the metered rate when it fills the tanker at the Fire Station. Plus, the cost of unmetered water from hydrants for fighting fires is "relatively insignificant" compared the infrastructure costs. See Part I.
Hydrant rental is probably a top 25 line item in the budget, putting aside compensation and capital costs. The Selectboard's decision on sidewalks put the hydrant rental issue front and center. See Sidewalk Repairs More Costly Than Anticipated. It is budget season. Time for the Selectboard and Fire District to justify this expenditure