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Non-resident drivers to foot emergency bills

Sacramento is seeking to recoup $300,000 – $500,000 per year after the passage of a new fire cost recovery ordinance – commonly referred to as a “crash tax” – Tuesday night.

The City Council voted 5-4 to charge out-of-town drivers who are at fault in auto accidents within city limits to recover expenses related to Fire Department responses.

Drivers could be billed from $435 for a basic “scene stabilization” to more than $2,200 for a “scene stabilization” involving more advanced issues such as hazardous materials and helicopter transportation, according to a staff report.

“I have some very serious legal concerns, and moral concerns about this,” said Councilman Darrell Fong, who joined council members Rob Fong, Sandy Sheedy and Bonnie Pannell in voting against the ordinance.

Darrell Fong raised the question of possible charges for police services in the same vein, saying he is uncomfortable with that as well.

The legality of the ordinance – and a confidential memo produced by the City Attorney’s office – were not openly discussed at the meeting. Deputy City Attorney Matt Ruyak said it constituted attorney/client privilege, despite numerous questions regarding the legality.

Councilwoman Angelique Ashby said declining to discuss the memo is a way to safeguard the city against potential litigation.

“I know it’s uncomfortable,” she said, referring to the decision to charge for services that were previously covered solely by taxes. “Nobody likes anything like this…. There is no free lunch.”

Councilman Steve Cohn echoed Ashby’s sentiments.

“I don’t feel real positive about this either, but what are our choices here?” he asked, adding that the other choice is possibly “browning-out” four more fire stations.

The ordinance is designed to recoup Fire Department costs and prevent further fire station brownouts, according to city officials.

“If a non-resident is involved in a traffic accident or has a fire in their vehicle, they would be billed for the cost of the response,” said Mark Prestwich, special projects manager for the city manager’s office, in a phone interview before the meeting.

The ordinance first came to the City Council Law and Legislation Committee last summer. Proponents of the ordinance claim that city residents are subsidizing emergency response services for out-of-town drivers who do not pay taxes that fund the Fire Department.

Drivers living or owning more than 50 percent of businesses on property in Sacramento will not be charged the fee.

Opponents of the ordinance, including the Sacramento Metro Chamber, argue that charging non-resident drivers would be unfair, and might dissuade businesses from coming to the city.

There was lingering confusion stemming from the first time the ordinance was discussed by the City Council as to whether the cost would be passed to drivers not at fault in collisions.

“Anyone that’s not responsible will not be subject to the ordinance,” Prestwich said, adding that insurance companies will determine which driver or drivers are at fault.

“It’s easily misunderstood, and it’s a confusing issue,” Prestwich said.

Sam Sorich, president of the Association of California Insurance Companies, argued that drivers not at fault would, in fact, still be billed.

“An innocent driver who experiences the trauma of an auto accident could be hit with a bill for hundreds of dollars,” he said.

Speaking during the public comment portion of the discussion, Connie Anderson said she thinks the income from the ordinance would be minimal compared to the hardship endured by the individuals.

“Will Sacramento join 60 other cities in heading toward an ‘each person for themselves’ mentality?” she asked.

Sacramento Fire Chief Ray Jones said the purpose of the bill is not to bring in revenue, but to recover costs associated with non-resident drivers involved in accidents.

When questioned by Rob Fong, Jones said it is possible that if the ordinance were to be found illegal, Sacramento residents could be subject to the charges. He also said there is no “at-fault” language in the ordinance.

Billing will be handled by a third-party company, Fire Recovery USA, which will take about 17 percent of the recovered costs, according to Jones.

At least 60 jurisdictions in California currently have similar ordinances, with most – like Sacramento – billing only non-resident drivers.

Brandon Darnell is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.

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