My city has entered into an agreement to provide fire service to a neighboring city of 1000 people for $10,000 yearly. This rate is less than 1/20th what my city pays.

I've made efforts to convince the city council and mayor to act but they have stated that they will continue to renew the agreement.

Is there any legal precedent for suing a city to amend or terminate an agreement due to fiscal nonfeasance?

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    Not a legal answer but you might want to understand the concept of marginal cost (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marginal_cost) before you accuse people of making uneconomic decisions. If the cost of providing the service is less than $10,000 (which it almost certainly is because the salaries and equipment is already paid for) this is a great deal for your city. – Dale M Feb 20 '20 at 11:14
  • I agree that there is a basic unfairness if you are paying more for fire service than someone in this neighboring city. To assess whether it is unfair we would need to know the population of your city. @DaleM is correct that this $10,000 might be free money for your city. However, your city council and mayor should still make an effort to charge the neighboring city a fair amount to ease your tax burden. – James Feb 21 '20 at 13:29
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    @mpr: In that case I would be mad too. I would want the fire service charge increased to $260,000 yearly. Unfortunately, I am not a lawyer, so I'm not much help. I have started a bounty on your question so maybe it will get more attention. Good luck! – James Feb 22 '20 at 18:47
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    @Nij: Isn't that asking the OP to prove a negative? If it came to a court case, wouldn't the city have to prove that there IS a benefit to the city? – James Feb 23 '20 at 16:17
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    @James "wouldn't the city have to prove that there IS a benefit to the city?" No. Assuming for sake of argument that someone suing the city had standing to sue, the burden of proof is always on the person bringing the lawsuit. Ordinances are presumed valid unless this is disproven beyond a reasonable doubt. – ohwilleke Feb 25 '20 at 0:13

Is there any legal precedent for suing a city to amend or terminate an agreement due to fiscal nonfeasance?

There is not really any legal precedent for prevailing in such a lawsuit.

Obviously, of course, the detailed facts and circumstances matter. If a state statute prescribed other terms, for example, and expressly gives someone standing to enforce the statute, then that is another matter. In many states, standing to enforce violations of municipal laws governing their finances and contracts is vested by statute or the state constitution in the state attorney general.

Is there any legal recourse for a resident who believes their city is committing financial nonfeasance?

Probably not. Certainly not in court.

Usually, individual citizens or taxpayers do not have standing to bring suit related to acts which affect all citizens or taxpayers equally or proportionately, but do not constitute an individualized injury to the particular taxpayer.

Municipal governments have broad discretion to enter into contracts with other municipalities on rates that they deem fit which do not have to approximate cost or be profit maximizing.

Some states and cities allow citizens to petition to have legislation that has been adopted (agreements are generally adopted by city ordinance) to be placed on the ballot for a vote if a sufficient number of people vote on it within a sufficient time of the ordinance or law being passed (this is called a "referendum power"). But, most do not.

Otherwise, your sole recourse is to get a majority elected to city council and a new mayor, to change the policy when the agreement expires.

wouldn't the city have to prove that there IS a benefit to the city?


Assuming for sake of argument that someone suing the city had standing to sue, the burden of proof is always on the person bringing the lawsuit. Ordinances are presumed valid unless this is disproven beyond a reasonable doubt. For example:

It is an axiom of our judicial system that legislative enactments are presumed to be constitutional. Parties attacking their validity carry a heavy burden of proof: invalidity must be established clearly and beyond a reasonable doubt

People v. Beaver, 549 P.2d 1315, 1316 (Colo. 1976)

The constitutional test in the face of an equal protection challenge (assuming for sake of argument that there was standing) would be a "rational basis test" and there would be a rational basis for (1) saying that the city benefit from its neighbor not having adequate fire protection which could spread to them, (2) on the basis that the marginal cost might be low, and (3) on the basis that the municipality probably has a legal duty to aid a neighboring municipality if it has the ability to do so in the absence of an agreement without necessarily having a right to compensation under a doctrine called mutual aid when the proper conditions are met (sometimes formalized by agreements and/or governed by state statutes such as the Tennessee's Mutual Aid and Emergency and Disaster Assistance Agreement Act of 2004, Tennessee Code Annotated § 58–8–101, et seq.,).

The rational basis test is met if you can describe some rational reason why the law might make sense for the city to pass (which is not expressly prohibited by law or a constitutional right), even if the rational reason is not empirically correct, and even if the rational reason wasn't the actual reason for passing the law. This ordinance would almost certainly pass the rational basis test.

In general, a disagreement over the price term of an agreement being too high or too low almost always fails. A municipality is not obligated to negotiate a "fair market value" or "fair" price for services that it provides to other municipalities.


Besides the lack of standing, you lack the ability to sue the city as you'd need there to even be a law that allows you to sue your city for such. But cities - like states - can't be sued for handling tax money but for extreme cases at all. And you don't even know the value of the fire service. Sure, you know it costs 250 per caput to uphold, but it's value is much different.

If your house isn't in the process of burning down or threatened by your neighbor's house being on fire, the effective value you'd put on a fire engine waiting on standby somewhere in the back of your head is low. But if you are stuck in a burning house, you would suddenly sign over your life savings and more to have that fire engine on standby. So, first of all, that makes value estimates for such a service very hard. But, for the sake of argument, let's pin it to the value of the saved property and ignore humans saved, as putting a number on human life is somewhat unethical. Or use total dispatches to an area.

And, also for the sake of argument, let's assume you could have standing (you can't) and you could sue for a fair share (you can't) and that you could shift the burdon of proof to the city (you can't). Let's try to determine the fair share based on performance-value, because that would be the fair share.

Value of the Service

The neighboring city has considerably longer response times if the distance to it is more than 2 or 3 miles - resulting in considerably worse service. Your city's service might be also restricted in what it offers or conditions, further degrading the effective value. Without reviewing the contract, that's impossible to know.

Is the amount of property saved in your city compared to the amount saved there more than 25 to 1? Probably, because a house burned down inside of a larger town is much more expensive than out in a rural area per incident - the building is more expensive, the threat of fire catching over is much higher and more humans are affected.

Is the amount of calls acted upon in your town larger than 25 for one from the other town? Definitely, as the number of incidents happening in areas of higher population density is much larger. There is an exponential correlation between emergency calls and dispatches to the population density of an area.

To say it in numbers: assume a house in the Michigan countryside costs 300-grand includng some 100 acers of land around. For the same ammount you could get a 2-unit building in downtown Detroit. That's twice as many people living on less than 0.1 % of the land, or about 20000 times the effect a fire in one home affecting another home!

Using those metrics, your town would probably not even be entitled to the 10000 dollars, let alone more!

Why offer it at all?

10000 certainly is a symbolic number, but it also might be the magic number what it would cost the small town to keep a volunteer fire brigade per year over a long time. Having such a volunteer brigade (it might have one anyway) would reduce the value of the contract massively, as its service needed would reduced to emergency situations (which is mandatory under many state jurisdictions anyway) and medical emergency vehicle service (which might also be mandatory).

  • They used to have a fire department but shut it down after signing this agreement. They are essentially a lower tax, wealthier residential community nestled into our city (distance of 0). I would argue the value of our service is much greater than a volunteer brigade as it's ISO Level 1 (highest rating). Being a wealthier community their call level is likely lower, but I can't confirm that. I would be curious to know more about emergency service being mandatory? Are you saying we'd be on the hook to provide service to them regardless, at least in some states? – mpr Feb 26 '20 at 14:37

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