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Florida considers ban on 'crash taxes' charged by emergency crews

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was bad enough when Matthew Norville rear-ended another driver, crushing the front end of his own car.

A few weeks later, the Pensacola college student got a $714 bill to cover the cost of the county police and firefighters who responded.

Florida lawmakers are considering a ban on such fees, dubbed "crash taxes" by detractors who say they're unfair and not always covered by insurance. Six other states -- Arkansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Tennessee and Georgia -- already prohibit them, and Alabama and California may do the same.

"When you have an accident you're taught to call 911," said Norville's mom, Amy. "It never occurred to us that there would be a charge for them."

A Florida Senate committee unanimously approved the proposed ban Monday. A companion bill has three more committee stops before the full House can consider it, so it may not reach the floor this session.

Republican Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton, the bill's Senate sponsor, said residents already pay property taxes to cover emergency services and shouldn't face additional fees if they're in accidents.

"We've got to stop the madness right now," he said.

But cash-strapped municipalities in 16 states, including Escambia County, where the Norvilles live, say the fees help pay for the time taken away from other police and fire duties and are necessary because of declining property taxes and tight budgets.

South Adams County Fire Protection District in Colorado, just north of Denver, began charging for accidents in January. Fire marshal Ron LaPenna says property taxes just aren't cutting it.

When emergency crews are called to a crash caused by a driver who doesn't live and pay taxes there, the driver is charged a basic response fee of $200, more if additional services are needed.

In Escambia County in the Florida Panhandle, it doesn't matter whether the at-fault driver is a resident or not. Officials decide who is at fault. Then, a schedule of fees is applied; 15 minutes of a firefighter's time costs $10, while sending a fire engine costs about $600 an hour.

Since 2007, the county has billed drivers more than $235,000, but collected only $19,000, whether because insurers refuse to pay or because many of the at-fault drivers are residents. Escambia County waives the fee if a resident's insurance doesn't cover it.

Ohio-based Cost Recovery Corp. bills drivers for the county and gets a 10 percent cut of whatever fees it recovers. Company president Regina Moore says the system is more fair than forcing taxpayers to foot the bill for accidents they're not involved in.

"My tax dollars should not be used for services I'm not actually using," she said. "Please don't use my money for somebody else who was driving recklessly."

Moore says just over half of insurers pay her company's fees for their customers, but they've also been active in opposing them.

"It's double taxation," said William Stander, assistant vice president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a national trade organization. He likes to say that fire and police departments should "serve and protect, not serve and collect."

Matthew Norville estimates his $714 bill probably covered 10 minutes for a fire engine to sweep away accident debris and 30 minutes for a patrolman to write a report.

His case had a happy ending: His mother called the insurance company and the bill went away. They're not sure who paid it or whether it was waived.

But for a college student who works as a building manager and as part of a crew that does sound and lighting, even the bill was cause for alarm.

Said Norville: "That's like a whole month of pay."


On the Net:

Cost Recovery Corp.: www.municipalfeefacts.com/

Property Casualty Insurers Association of America: www.accidenttax.com/

Ohio Insurance Institute: www.accidentresponsefee.com


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