The Mailbox: Joplin Fire Hydrants

Who should pay, and how they should pay for fire hydrants is the center of a debate in Joplin, Missouri.  I'm curious to know what Strong Towns thinks about this.

The City of Joplin, MO, has contracted with a company called Missouri American Water (MAW) to maintain their water utility. As the article presents it, Joplin and MAW are renegotiating their contract agreement and have a question over who should pay for fire hydrants.

This article contains terrible journalism (probably because it is a television clip) as it doesn't answer a number of key questions.

  • Why is the current contract being renegotiated? Has it expired or is that just a standard feature?
  • How is the maintenance of other parts of the system handled? When a watermain breaks, who pays for that?
  • How are extensions of the current system handled? When a new subdivision goes in and new pipe is needed, who pays for that?

At the end of the day one thing should be clear: In the current system, if you are receiving water from MAW you are going to pay for the hydrant. The question really comes down to whether or not it makes more sense to do that under the umbrella of the contract or as part of a city tax.

In general, it makes more sense to make the fee for maintaining the hydrant part of the contract. MAW doesn't seem to be disputing that concept:

"When the city needs a fire hydrant at a location, they call us," [Christie] Barnhart [of MAW] says.  "We go and install the hydrant.  At that point the hydrant is no longer an asset of Missouri American Water.  It becomes property of the city, and we maintain it for them."

It also makes no sense for the city to pay for hydrants as part of the general levy. Where's the connection?

What really needs to be understood is why this expense exists. Hydrants aren't just needed randomly across the system. They don't just grow up from the ground and then need to be maintained. The standard for water systems commonly used by engineers in the Midwest has a spacing between hydrants of between 300 and 600 feet. This is to facilitate connection by fire fighting equipment at a radius that still allows for flow and pressure, given the head loss in the fire hose. 

That means that the need for the new hydrants is due to an expansion of the system (unless the existing system was built without the proper hydrants, but I discount the possibility). In an expansion situation, the problem of paying for hydrants makes no sense.

Why should existing customers, who are already paying to support the existing system, pay even more for expanding the system to new customers? What's in it for them?

Let me give an analogy. I run a restaurant and you come there every day for lunch. One day I increase the rate of your sandwich by 20%. You ask why and I say, "It is to pay for the new restaurant up the street I am opening." What would you say? You would likely say, "Let the people up the street pay for their own restaurant." You would be right.

But that is not the way that local government works. When it comes to our development pattern, we are collectively as schizophrenic as possible.

In the left brain: Growth is good. We need new growth so we have additional tax base and additional revenues into the system. We all benefit from growth and should collectively invest in it.

In the right brain: New growth is expensive. We can't afford all of these hydrants (or the water line for that matter). Let's get someone else to pay for that. It is bankrupting us.

Our advice is easy.

Joplin, if you can't afford the hydrants, the water main and the other costs of new growth, how does that new growth benefit your community? If it doesn't create more wealth for your town than it costs you collectively to service, it is just making you poorer. Adopt a new pattern of development that actually makes your town financially stronger, not systematically poorer.

The worst thing that can be done in Joplin is to hide the costs of growth by rolling them into incremental increases in water rates or sales taxes. The developers and new property owners in the areas of new growth should pay for the costs of their endeavors, including hydrants. And if the economics of maintaining their infrastructure does not make sense, then the public should not assume the responsibility for maintaining it. Otherwise the Ponzi scheme nature of the development pattern just becomes a hidden tax on the existing poor to pay for the soon-to-be poor.


I love Missouri and we would love to do a Curbside Chat in Joplin or in any other community across the United States (or elsewhere, if asked). You can sign up here to start the conversation in your community. You can also get more Strong Towns discussion by joining us on Facebook or Twitter. Thank you for the question and thank you to all of our readers. Keep doing what you can to build Strong Towns.