A plan sought by Oakdale Mayor Pat Paul to dispel severe budget cuts to public safety by charging outside area motorists costs of the fire department for responding to accidents and car fires may progress as a way to generate much needed funds to city coffers.
The mayor, speaking at the June 3 city council meeting, said there were few other palatable options for the financially strapped city that is facing the challenge of doing more work with fewer resources.
“It’s being done by other cities in the area and I think we should look at it, too,” said Paul. “It happened to my husband in San Francisco.”
In the latest efforts to close the gaps in public budgets an increasing number of California cities with their tight budgets and revenue shortfalls are ripping holes in the fabric of how local public safety agencies respond to incidents.
More than 84 municipalities and fire districts, including Stockton, Modesto, and Manteca, now charge motorists who were involved in auto accidents that require the fire department to respond to the scene. Even Oakdale Rural Fire Department has an “Emergency Response Fee.” Many more municipalities in the area are considering adopting similar resolutions.
Last year the department answered 140 calls for vehicle accidents and 105 were for accidents with injuries. There were 32 responses that involved car fires. If the department billed for all 140 accidents, at the going average of $400 each, it would amount to an extra $56,000 in income.
“It’s something we should really look at,” Paul said. “It’s a revenue stream.”
That fire department response fee however does not gauge the severity of the response which might be for a high-level emergency rescue or putting out a fire with foam or simply just putting down absorbent for leaked fluid. Of the 84, some charge anyone involved in a crash and many levy a fee only on nonresidents who have the bad luck to be in an accident in such inhospitable locales.
Those bills can be large and the revenue could quickly soar with “add-ons” some cities charge. A survey of California cities with the “crash tax” showed a simple response to an accident usually costs between $300 to $500 but that base fee can rapidly rise.
In Folsom, if a fire chief shows up at your accident, it'll cost an extra $200 an hour. Need the Jaws of Life rescue in Sacramento? Add $1,875. In Chico, going over the side of the road could cost as much as your car, because a complex extraction and rescue goes for $2,000 an hour, plus $50 per hour for each rescue worker involved. If your incident requires a hazmat team your bill will have another $100 per hour per team member. In San Francisco, as Mayor Paul described, an ambulance ride will cost $1,642 under their ordinance.
These fees may have financially conscious citizens of the city thinking twice before calling 911.
While the attractiveness of "crash taxes" is rising in revenue hungry city halls across the nation, the fee proposals have resulted in opposition from insurance companies, small businesses, tourism associations, and outraged citizens, who see the bills as a double tax.
Some of the charges that are a part of crash taxes can be passed on to an insurance company. But insurance companies can sometimes be slow to pay for bills they see as overly inflated and often pass some of the cost onto the individual filing the claim.
If the insurance company refuses to pay the “crash tax” bill, claiming the charges aren't a covered expense because insurance is not meant to cover local government budget shortfalls or city services – these are funded by taxpayer dollars – the charge may wind up being the driver’s responsibility.
Proponents of the “crash tax” are debt collection companies such as CostRecovery Corporation that advertise themselves as “a national leader in recovering costs for safety services.” Others in the area use Fire Recovery USA.
For a 10-percent cut, these debt collection agencies will recover the costs associated with the “crash tax.”
Oakdale Fire Fighters Association President Dave Peterson said there may be room for an emergency response fee as long as it did not “double tax” city residents.
Councilman Farrell Jackson echoed the same concerns.
“Our citizens pay for a service already by being taxed,” Jackson said. “I feel this would be a slap to them.”
Paul also said she would like the city looking into adding some rescue services into the fee.
“As a citizen, I’m paying for services of the city,” Paul said. “But if someone is stupid on the rivers, why as a taxpayer of Oakdale should I have to pay? It’s different when you grew up with it (the river).”
According to Peterson, Oakdale has a cost recovery system in place when the act is criminal or due to severe negligence, but with city hall layoffs and shortages there isn’t anyone to monitor or follow-up.
With cities now looking for more creative ways to raise revenues and cover costs the argument will be how the money is raised and who to affect.