Calif. fire department to start billing for some emergency services

Officials said the fees will be charged for emergencies involving vehicle accidents, helicopter landings, illegal fires, hazmat releases and water emergencies

By Judith Prieve
East Bay Times

EAST CONTRA COSTA COUNTY, Calif. — Residents in far East Contra Costa County who receive emergency fire services may see a bill go to their insurance companies to cover the cost as early as next month.

The financially strapped East Contra Costa Fire Protection District, which serves 249 square miles east of Antioch and more than 114,000 residents, will join a number of fire districts in the Bay Area and elsewhere that already charge some type of cost recovery fees. Among those are the Contra Costa Fire Protection District, Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, Novato Fire Protection District, San Ramon and Orinda-Moraga fire districts.

The East Contra Costa Fire Protection District Board last week approved the fees on an 8-1 vote, with Joe Young dissenting. No resident spoke for or against the fees during the hearing.

Fire Chief Brian Helmick said the fees will be charged for responses to emergencies involving vehicle accidents and extrications, helicopter landings, illegal fires, hazardous material releases and water emergencies.

The charges will range from $448 an hour per engine or $560 per truck for those starting illegal fires to $6,608 for three hours for complex hazardous material incidents. A routine car accident fee will be billed at $487 an hour. The fee amounts will increase as additional crews or air ambulances are needed, but could be waived if a patient demonstrates a financial burden, does not have insurance, or dies, Helmick said.

Fees will not be charged for residential, commercial or vegetation fires, he said.

The fire chief estimates about 10 to 15 percent of the district’s 8,000 annual calls will be subject to the new fees, bringing the agency about $50,000 in additional revenue a year.

“The root issue is we are an underfunded fire agency,” Helmick said, noting the district gets far less in property tax allocations than other districts in the area. “It’s not paying again (for services) because the property tax revenues are not adequate. If they were, we would not be going for this.”

The board adopted a similar fee plan in 2016 — the first of its kind in the district’s history — for medical aid responses to urgent health complaints such as chest pains or dangerously low blood sugar levels, which raised some $50,000 last year. That fee, now at $209.46 for 30 minutes or $399 an hour, was intended to cover not only a portion of the salaries and benefits for an engine’s three-man crew, but also the cost of district management supervising each incident, as well as fuel and equipment maintenance. The fees can be waived if a patient demonstrates financial hardship or dies.

Bethel Island resident Mark Whitlock Sr. said he originally was against the cost recovery fees, but changed his mind when more administrative staff was hired recently, making it more manageable.

“I was always against it up until a year or so ago,” he said. “We had no staff to do it — and I was not wanting to spend any more on staff.”

But, Whitlock said, the proposed fees were one of the few resources the district found in “turning over every stone” for revenue as voters had suggested.

“It is a damned it you do and damned if you don’t,” he said. “People insisted we look at everything that is out there. Will all this be in effect in two or three years? Only the test of time will tell.”

Helmick cautioned residents to look beyond the individual fees to the larger issue of the cash-strapped fire agency whose staffing levels and response times are far below the national standard.

“This decision is part of a much larger and complex problem,” he said.

The district’s financial woes date back decades when the area’s population was much smaller and volunteer firefighters provided service. In 1978, Proposition 13 cemented the property-tax allocation for the fire district at 8 percent — far less than the average 12 percent elsewhere, leaving the fire agency with less money than other area agencies.

Over the years, the district has tried to remedy the shortfall with such measures a parcel tax, benefit assessment and utility-user tax, all of which failed at the ballot box.

“Folks have been recommending that we live within our means and explore additional means of generating revenue,” Helmick said. “This is us kicking over a rock and giving us every revenue we can. … We are doing everything we can do legally.”

The newly approved cost recovery fees are possible under a section of the California Health and Safety Code and the Fire Protection District Law of 1987, which allows districts to cover the cost of providing services, he said, noting the board can cancel them at any point.

“Cost recovery for fire districts is not unique to us. Up and down the state, and across the U.S. to some degree, fires districts are doing this to cover their expenses.”

Board member Young, however, said he voted against it because residents already pay taxes to cover such services.

“We support the fire district through our property tax system and I think it is inappropriate to be singling out a user of an emergency service for payment of these fees,” he said. “The services we are billing for are services that we already are charging for with taxes. In my mind, it’s billing twice for the same service.”

Young also noted that for the administrative burden the cost recovery fees will create, the return will be relatively small.

“We already have a medical fee that didn’t produce much revenue — in fact, far less than what we had projected,” he said. “… I think the fire district is providing the best service that can be provided with the money the public is willing to pay.”

Young also noted that the small amount of revenue from the new extra fees is not worth angering future voters considering proposed fire district revenue-generating measures.

“You might be sending a bill to your strongest supporters,” he said. “It’s better to fully fund the fire district for the services you need rather than nickel and dime your customers. That discourages them. I don’t think it’s the way to go.”

Copyright 2018 East Bay Times

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