BY KATHERINE KELLY
Imagine you’re in an auto accident and after the dust has settled, you receive a bill from the City for $101. You sit back and wonder, what’s this all about? It’s called an Emergency Response User Fee Level 1 for scene safety, assessment and investigation. If you have a Level 2 Motor Vehicle Collision that includes fire suppression, medical aid, or extrication, that’s going to run you $161. If the emergency responders’ have any Lost or Damaged Equipment, you’ll be billed for actual cost and you’ll be billed for the actual cost of supplies.
Let’s take a look at the proposed Structure Fires:
Residential (up to 3 hours) results in a bill for $425. Residential (each additional hour) will be billed at $70/hr. For ommercial structure fires, (up to 5 hours) your bill will be $830 and $110 for each additional hour. In addition, you’ll be billed the commercial rate for the water used, actual cost for damaged equipment and supplies.
911 Hang-ups. The first time, you’ll get a warning. The 2nd time you’ll get a bill for $100 from the Police Force and $100 from the Fire Department. By the way, there were NO 911 Hang-ups in 2010, 2011 and 2012 so why charge for something that isn’t happening?
Fire – Commercial and Residential in a 12 month period: The first time, you’ll get a warning. The 2nd time you’ll get a bill for $100 from the Police Force and $150 from the Fire Department.
False Alarms (Burglar) in a 12 month period: The first 3 times you’ll get a warning. Then you’ll get a bill for $75, thereafter $125 and thereafter $200.
False Alarms for Robbery/Panic in a 12 months period. 1st time $75, 2nd time $125, 3rd time $200 and 4th time $350.
It was heartening to hear city resident (and newly elected 1st District Supervisor) Gitlin and Councilwoman Schellong both disagree about the fire and auto accident provisions of this ordinance. One should not be fined for having an accident, be it a household fire or a fender bender in the car. Life is full of happenings out of our control, this why we call them an “accident” and not “on purpose.”
The human element to this proposed fee adds insult to injury. It’s traumatizing enough to go through having your home or business burn down, now you have to worry about an extra expense. I f you have a high deductible on your home or car insurance, or don’t have any insurance because you can’t afford it, the extra fee will be financially crushing as well as emotionally devastating.
And what about the property tax home owners already pay? These monies go to the city for fire and police protection. Isn’t adding another fee just a backdoor tax and a way to skirt prop 13?
As far as an ordinance to impose a fee for hanging up on a 911 call, maybe it should not be considered a fee at all but a fine for breaking a law. Pulling the fire alarm in a school hallway is illegal, as is shouting, “FIRE,” in a crowded theater. When the intention is to cause chaos and confusion or perhaps a mentally ill person’s attempt to get attention, this pulls it into a whole other category. It is no longer a “fee” but a “fine” for unlawful behavior. But it begs the question: isn’t this behavior already illegal?
But who is to determine what is “false”? Maybe you thought you heard something in the house and you make a call from your cell in your bedroom, not wanting to confront the intruder yourself. But when the officer arrives and there is no one in the home, is this a false alarm, or is this a case of a mistake? Who makes this call? Who decides if it deserving of “fee” or fine? What is the actual definition of a false alarm?
It states in the language of the actual ordinance that “The fees must be reasonable and may not exceed the City’s actual costs of providing services to any incident for which fees are imposed.” In the case of a false alarm at my home because something set off the alarm and I was unable to enter the code quickly enough and an officer shows up at my door, which takes all of about 5 minutes, and I’m charged $75, are you telling me this officer makes $75 in a 5-minute span of time? Ahem, that would be $900 an hour. I’m pretty sure our police officers do not make that kind of dough. Oh but wait! If it goes off yet again, it’s $125, and on the 4th event it’s now up to $350. Now we can plainly see this is not about recouping costs. This is a money grab.
What about visitors to our city? Should they be advised in our brochures that if anything unfortunate happens here they will be getting a bill in the mail? That’s a great way to attract tourists! Or let’s just spring it on them. They have a minor fender bender because someone in front of them stopped suddenly and they were distracted momentarily. They bump the car in front of them. Nothing serious but some damage done to both cars and a police officer is called to make a report. Now instead of just an unfortunate memory of their vacation, they also have to pay $101 and vow to never return or even pass through this town again. And, they’ve told all their Facebook friends about it.
Will this newest “service fee” add another layer of bureaucracy? Of course it will. Someone has to take the report, file the paperwork, send out the bill, manage the account. Who will do this? Will it be merged into current operations or will a new hire be needed?
There are many aspects to consider and most of them scream DON’T DO IT!!!
County resident, Paul Dillard said to the council, “Don’t do this to the people.”
There could be a chilling effect where people do not call for help when it’s truly needed. People might watch crimes happen or even their neighbor’s house burn down thinking they might be charged the fee. It’s imposing a stealth tax on homeowners that already pay taxes for emergency services. It might scare off visitors or even potential newcomers.
When property values increase, so do property taxes. The general fund goes up for the city. When property values decrease, as they have steadily and dramatically these last four years, homeowners have been asking for reassessments and getting them. The general fund goes down for the city. But the city has not listened to those telling them to decrease their spending starting with payroll/benefits/pensions. Unions better read the writing on the walls or they may see themselves out of business. Instead of increasing revenues for the general fund through emergency fees, perhaps it’s time for the city council to get a BIG RED PENCIL and start slashing expenses starting with payroll/benefits/pensions and saying, “NO MORE” to the union negotiators. A 5% to 10% cut on nearly $3 million budget is $150,000 to $300,000 saved. What would that do for the city’s bottom line?
Every year there’s talk about cost of living increases, but how much does the government contribute to inflation making the cost of living go up? If the city council were really serious wouldn’t they be voting to stop merit bonuses and stop that up to 5% rate increase for City Attorney Bob Black or his assistant, Martha Rice?
If you want to express your opinion, you can show up at the January 22, 2013 city council meeting, 6pm at the Flynn Center located in the Government Building on “H” Street. Or you can send e-mails to your city council members. Here’s a list:
Mayor Rich Enea firstname.lastname@example.org
Mayor Pro Tem Rick Holley email@example.com
Councilmember Kelly Schellong firstname.lastname@example.org
Councilmember Kathryn Murray email@example.com
Councilmember Ron Gastineau firstname.lastname@example.org