State may ax crash fees

Mar 10, 2009

Police, fire service charges may end

Thyrie Bland

Pensacola News Journal--March 10, 2009

When Escambia County resident Gwen Hemminger was in a minor car accident last year, Escambia County Fire-Rescue responded.

Much to her surprise, the fire department sent a $742 bill to her insurance company, Direct General.

“I did not get any services from them,” said Hemminger, 38. “I was like, ‘I did not call for you guys. I called for the Highway Patrol and so did the people in front of me.’ “

The Florida Legislature is expected to consider legislation this spring to stop local governments from charging fees for police and fire agencies to respond to vehicle accidents.

It’s a practice that has brought in thousands of dollars in revenue for budget-strapped governments and public-safety agencies.

But it also has drawn criticism from some residents and insurance companies who warn that higher premiums may result.

Who’s billed for what varies among county and municipal governments:

— Gulf Breeze bills non-resident drivers $265, if the driver is at fault.

— Milton bills nonresidents $285 for police service and $350 for fire services, if the driver is at fault.

— Escambia County formerly billed residents as well as nonresidents for fire services but suspended that practice last year. It has never billed for police services.

The fees were based on time spent at the accident and what emergency vehicles responded. The individual fees ranged from less than $100 to more than $4,000.

— Santa Rosa County and Pensacola do not collect such fees.

John Sims, fire services manager for Escambia County Fire-Rescue, said the fees are needed to pay for services that people benefit from but don’t always pay for.

“These bills are obviously pushed by insurance company lobbyists,” Sims said.

Opponents of the practice say homeowners already pay for police and fire services through property taxes.

For example, Escambia County residents pay a $75-per-household fire tax; Pensacola Beach residents pay $201.

Sims argues the fire tax pays for fire protection and nothing else.

“And let’s face it – there are a lot of people who don’t pay that tax who have automobile accidents,” he said. “A lot people travel through here from out of town who don’t pay that.”

Eddy: Don’t ban fees

At least five states – Indiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Tennessee – have banned local governments from collecting accident fees.

“I just don’t think it would be fair for the Legislature to take that kind of action, recognizing that cities have additional burdens in keeping highways safe that the state is not helping us fund,” Gulf Breeze City Manager Edwin “Buz” Eddy said.

In Gulf Breeze, Eddy points out that about 50,000 cars travel on U.S. 98 daily.

“They rely on us to make the street safe and have a vigilant police force that writes tickets,” he said. “We can continue to do that only if we give them an opportunity to contribute to that cost.”

Collecting a challenge

Escambia County has suspended its fee collections while the county seeks an opinion from the Florida Attorney General’s Office on whether the law that prohibits the release of crash reports for 60 days applies to fire departments, Sims said.

The Florida Highway Patrol was making the fire service wait the 60 days for information from a crash report – including insurance information – if the fire department was unable to get the information at the scene, Sims said.

Collecting the fees is not a given.

“Insurance companies, of course, are balking at it and in some cases deny a claim and send the bill to their client,” Sims said.

State Farm spokeswoman Michal Connolly said the company handles requests to pay accident fees on a case-by-case basis.

She said, in general, the company does not support the practice and said it could lead to higher premiums overall.

“There is no evidence these additional fees, or really what they are – taxes – lead to better or improved services for customers,” she said.
Additional Facts
Accident fee collections

Escambia County
Billed: $233,694 .
Collected: $27,301.
As of December 2008

Billed: $33,055.
Collected: $20,390.
As of Feb. 18

Gulf Breeze
Billed: $29,466.
Collected: $14,896
As of Feb. 18