Ohio Fire Department charged for water usage

By Kate Synder, Zanesville Times Recorder

FRAZEYSBURG, Ohio – For the past 11 years, the Frazeysburg Fire Department could fill its fire trucks and tankers in its own fire station without worrying about the water bill. And for the past 11 years, the water the fire department used to extinguish fires was free.

But it was never supposed to be.

The village’s water facility was paid for with loans from the United States Department of Agriculture. And according to a March 29 Civil Rights Compliance Review conducted by the USDA, as a condition for receiving USDA funding, “no free service or use of the facility will be permitted.”

That stipulation is also part of a loan agreement between the USDA and Frazeysburg dated Sept. 12, 2005. The village should have been charging the fire department for water back then, but wasn’t. Since the review in March, though, the department has received water bills for filling its trucks.

The Times Recorder requested a copy of the compliance review, but was told it would not be available until July to give Frazeysburg the opportunity to object to its release.

A bill from April stated the fire department owed $87.68 by May 31 for 4,000 gallons of water. In the department’s transaction summary with the village, another charge of $64.63 was dated June 3 for 1,900 gallons of water. Fire Chief David Smith said while that might not seem like a lot of money, it will add up, and these are expenses the department did not factor into its budget.

He also believes the department simply should not have to pay for water it uses to serve the community.

“We shouldn’t be required to pay for something of an uncontrolled nature,” Smith said.

Smith also said if the fire department can’t come up with the money, it may shift the charges to village residents. Meaning if someone’s house or property was on fire, they could be hit with a bill for the water used to put the fire out.

“We budget $9,000 for utilities for the whole year,” he said. “Any additional cost we incur is going to be passed on to someone.”

It takes 3,800 gallons of water to fill the department’s fleet of trucks one time. The department has four fire trucks, including a tanker.

Gerald Howard, who is acting mayor of Frazeysburg since former mayor Gary Middlemus recently resigned, said he sympathizes with the fire department and believes it is wrong to charge them for water.

A sign is taped to the Frazeysburg fire station’s waterBuy Photo
A sign is taped to the Frazeysburg fire station’s water pump to remind firefighters to fill up the department’s trucks and tankers at a fire hydrant to avoid being billed by the village. (Photo: Shane Flanigan/Times Recorder)
“It’s not something the village wanted to do,” Howard said.

But the village has no choice, per the agreement with the USDA, he said.

“I was on that fire department for over 20 years, and I know they don’t have a lot of money,” Howard said. “I personally don’t feel that we should charge them for water.”

The fire department covers 49 square miles, including the village of Frazeysburg, Jackson Township and Pike Township in Coshocton County. All three of those municipalities already have fire levies to support the department. There are two levies each in Jackson and Pike townships, which brings in $145,000 per year, and one levy in Frazeysburg, which brings in $64,000 per year.

In 2010, the fire department’s savings was depleted because the Frazeysburg fire levy renewal did not end up on the ballot, so the department was without those funds for an entire year, Smith said. As a result, the department essentially has no savings.

Under the Ohio Revised Code, water supply for certain services, including for extinguishing fires, must be free for those agencies. But that only applies to fire departments that are owned by their municipalities.

Since Frazeysburg Fire Department is not owned by the village, the village can charge the fire department for the water it uses to fill its trucks, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

The fire department is a combination of paid and volunteer. Smith gets paid, as do the firefighters required to be on call from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day.

“We’re just frustrated,” Smith said.

There is a water pump in the department that firefighters use to fill their trucks. That water pump, called a slow pump, is attached to a village meter and the department can’t use it without being charged. The village suggested the firefighters fill trucks at a water hydrant to avoid being charged, because hydrants aren’t metered, Smith said.

That’s an adequate solution in the summer, when the weather is warm, Smith said. But in the winter, the firefighters will not want to stand outside in the cold and snow while filling up their trucks one at a time.

Plus, Smith said, because the water infrastructure is so old, prolonged use of the hydrants in that way could burst a water line.

A water line burst is a concern every time a hydrant is opened, said Tom Beckley, Frazeysburg village council member, but an update to the water infrastructure would cost money the village doesn’t have. And if the fire department doesn’t want to pay for water, right now at least, using the hydrants is the only option.

Per the agreement, the village is required to charge for water use, Beckley said. The village should have been charging the fire department since 2005, but wasn’t. While Beckley did not believe the village would or could retroactively charge the department for the past 11 years, but it needed to charge the department now, per the USDA’s requirement.

What the situation needs, Beckley said, is for the fire chief, mayor and council members to sit down and figure out, together, exactly how to address the problem.

“I don’t know what the best solution is for the fire department,” he said. “We need to have better communication.”

 

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