Norwalk, water company butt heads over fire hydrant rent hike

Photo of Abigail Brone
Norwalk Fire Department and SNEW workers respond after a water main break on Putnam Ave in Norwalk in 2017

Norwalk Fire Department and SNEW workers respond after a water main break on Putnam Ave in Norwalk in 2017

Erik Trautmann / Hearst Connecticut Media

NORWALK — The city and the South Norwalk Electric and Water Company are at odds after the latter decided to raise the cost of its fire hydrant rentals nearly threefold, ultimately leading to legal itnervention.

Fire Chief Gino Gatto and Assistant Chief Albert Bassett informed the Board of Estimate and Taxation at its March 1 meeting that South Norwalk Electric and Water was raising the cost of hydrant rentals from $84 to $200 per hydrant to match the cost of First District Water Department rentals.

In February, the Fire Department requested the transfer of more than $70,000 to accomodate the increase.

But after learning the city has no formal contract with the First District Water Department or the South Norwalk Electric and Water company, the BET said the city will not pay the bill until a contract is drawn up and is calling on the legal department and fire chief to put an end to the no-contract practice.

The company informed the fire department of the increase and the amount by which the rental rates would be raised in July, but did not hear from the city with these concerns until recently, SNEW CEO Alan Huth said.

“Quite some time ago so we provided them with plenty of notice to bring this up,” Huth said. “I’m a little bit at a loss.”

The hydrant rental rates have not been increased since the 1980s and, compared to surrounding municipalities, are more than fair, Huth said.

In all, Norwalk rents about 1,600 hydrants between the two districts, with 884 hydrants under First District and 581 under SNEW, Gatto said.

Much of the cost increase can be taken from the fire department’s remaining funds, but the $71,278 requested will account for the balance, Gatto said.

“We already got a bill from them,” Bassett told the board. “It will be effective in June and they notified us July of 2020 that it was going up for the next year. They’re taking basically 30 years of non-increases and increased this year on us.”

The board voted 5-1 at its meeting for the fire department administration and city’s legal team to coordinate with both water district suppliers a contract outlining the hydrant rental rate and stipulations surrounding rate increases.

The motion detailed the city will not pay the bill until the contracts and agreements have been reached. Board member Sheri Brown was the sole board member in opposition of the amendment, as said the bill should be paid prior to contractual negotiations.

“There is no intention not to pay the bill,” Mayor Harry Rilling clarified. “It’s March, we still have April, May and June. We are not late, and I’m optimistic the law department, working with the legal counsel, will be able to find a suitable agreement so we know in future years what potential raises may come and be prepared.”

Huth, however, said SNEW has no plans to enter into a formal agreement with the city, as he does not anticipate the rate necessitating an increase soon.

“These rates are not common to raise, as you can see from the history they haven’t been raised since the 1980s,” Huth said. “They should be good for several more years. I don’t see that there’s a need; I don’t see how it (a contract) would benefit anyone.”

With an approved motion for a formal contract to be made, the matter will continue to the next BET meeting in April.