The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 20, 2013

Commissioners review fire-prevention fee options

Board struggles to find equitable plan for all users

By CARL E. FEATHER - cfeather@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

JEFFERSON — Commissioners learned Tuesday that finding a more equitable way to charge for hydrant and sprinkler connections may not be possible without raising the bills for more than half of the customers who use the fire protection measures.

Commissioners are concerned about how the county calculates the monthly fee that commercial and industrial clients pay for private hydrants and sprinkler systems connected to the county’s water department. A complex rate structure based upon the size of the connections, number of hy-drants, square footage of the facility and fire-line size is used by the department to calculate the monthly charge. The board on Tuesday met with Shawn Aiken, Water Re-sources Department Mana-ger for CT Consultants, who developed several fee-structure scenarios at the board’s request.

The county in 2010 be-gan phasing in a decrease in the rate structure that has since then dropped the fees by 40 percent. After taking into account the 10 percent decrease that went into effect at the beginning of this year, the amount paid by the lowest rate payer is $40.86 a month. About half of the rate payers pay under $140 a month. But three large Saybrook Township facilities each pay more than $1,300 a month. The largest rate payer, Mohawk Paper, has 15 private hydrants and 343,000 excess square feet, creating a monthly bill of $1,785, the largest fire-protection bill in the system.

The water department receives about $15,000 monthly from the fees.

Aiken told the board that the fire protection fees help pay for the overall water system and thereby help the county hold the line on rates And while fire protection fees are a burden on the businesses that must pay them, they would not be able to obtain fire insurance coverage without the sprinkler systems, larger lines and hydrants.

Nevertheless, commissioners are concerned that the rate structure is too complex and could perhaps discourage businesses from moving into the area. Aiken said that in his experience, however, entrepreneurs are more concerned about being in the right location than they are the availability of water and sewer at a particular site.

“If they like the location, they will make the effort (to get water and sewer to it),” said Larry Meaney, director of the county’s department of environmental services.

Aiken presented four protection-fees scenarios to the board:

• A flat fee. To keep the plan revenue neutral, the fee would have to be around $250, which would result in an increase in the fee for about 75 percent of the customers.

• A $120 minimum plus $2.25 per 1,000 square feet of building. This plan would mean a higher bill for more than 50 percent of the customers.

• A $100 minimum plus $2.50 per 1,000 square feet of building. The plan would still adversely affect about half of the customers.

• Setting the fee based upon square footage, with several tiers. Only a few customers would see their bill decrease under this plan.

“At the end of the day, for those 41 people, it’s going to up substantially,” Board President Joseph Moroski said of the minimum plus square footage plans.

Meaney said another 10 percent reduction is set to kick next year and the final 10 percent reduction will come in 2015 unless the board changes its policy on the fees.