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Council rejects charging fire sprinkler fees to Gainesville businesses
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Some members of the Gainesville City Council are not having an easy time swallowing proposed fees from the Public Utilities Department.

Council members Thursday rejected a proposal from the water department to charge a monthly fee to in-city businesses with fire sprinkler systems. The monthly fee would have been based on tap size.

Fire sprinkler systems are separate from regular water service and are unmetered. Currently, businesses outside the city limits pay a $75 per-month fee for a fire sprinkler system of up to 200 sprinkler heads. When there are more than 200 sprinkler heads in a building, customers pay 20 cents for each additional head.

Businesses inside the city currently do not pay a fee for fire sprinkler systems.

The department proposed restructuring the fees and charging businesses by tap size instead of by the number of sprinkler heads. The fee would be a set monthly rate to each business depending on the size of the water tap feeding its sprinkler system.

The proposal would charge all businesses — inside and outside of the city limits — a monthly fee that would increase with tap size, ranging from $8.61 for a 3-inch tap to the largest monthly fee of $204.26 for a 10-inch tap.

The proposal would have phased in the fee for in-city customers over a period of three years.

However, City Attorney James E. "Bubba" Palmour said the department’s proposal could cause legal problems since it charged customers for the water they could possibly use instead of the water they actually used.

"The fee can only represent the cost you incur in doing whatever you’re doing," Palmour said. "You’ve got to be able to justify the expenditure."

Public Utility Director Kelly Randall told council members that since fire sprinkler systems are not metered, the department cannot determine how much water flows through the sprinklers and charge for sprinkler use.

"They don’t pay for the water," Randall said. "The water’s free."

Randall said the department should charge by tap size because the department can determine how much water can possibly flow through the different-sized taps.

"We’re trying to base it off of the information we have," Randall said. "We know a 4-inch tap will pass "X" amount of water and that’s why we want to base it on that."

Councilmen Danny Dunagan and George Wangemann opposed the change in fees for city customers. Wangemann said the proposed fees come at a bad time, citing the economic downturn.

"We just nickle and dime our people to death," Dunagan said.

"If you create this fee, there are probably 20, 30 or 40 other fees you can come up with to make more revenue," Wangemann said.

Randall said restructuring the fees to make in-city businesses pay for their fire sprinkler systems would keep the rest of the utility’s customer base from footing the bill. The result would keep water rates down — a notion that Mayor Myrtle Figueras liked.

"I just need to say whoever uses the service should pay for the service," Figueras said.

"I would expect to pay for my own usage," she said. "We’re going to expect them to keep rates down."

Attempting compromise, Randall suggested that the change be made for county customers and that the City Council reconsider adding the charge for in-city businesses next year.

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