Smash and grab Florida style
From the Miami Herald-
As if crashing your car weren't bad enough, some Florida cities are adding a bit of pain on the side: a bill if you need fire rescue.We pay for fire rescue services through taxes, no one should have to pay a fee for emergency help. If some jackass totals my car, breaks my back and puts me in the hospital, I'm going to get billed for needing to be rescued? We all know how well South Florida police are at judging who is at fault.
Hialeah has been doing it since last year. Cocoa has just approved it. And a couple of smaller cities in Central Florida, Maitland and Winter Park, have had the fees on the books for about three years.
The service isn't cheap. In Hialeah, it's $435 for fire rescue to free the scene of hazards and do minor work like disconnecting a car battery. If you need ''hydraulics'' to get you out of your wreck -- better known as the Jaws of Life -- be ready to pay $1,800. And if you need the rescue team to set up a landing site for a medical chopper, the total comes to $2,126. That doesn't include ambulance or chopper charges, which have been around for years.
As the state Legislature gets more serious about forcing local government to slash property taxes, other cities are considering the practice.
''The thought of charging someone for responding to an accident on a per-incident basis is a little foreign,'' said Dania Beach City Manager Ivan Pato. ``But necessity is the mother of all creation, and if Tallahassee really forces county and municipal government to adjust to cuts in revenue, then anything is on the table.''
Larry Scovoto, executive director of the Florida Fire Chiefs' Association, says the practice is gaining acceptance all over the country.
''It is starting to gain momentum in the state of Florida,'' he said.
Hialeah Fire Chief Otto Drozd said the purpose of billing accident victims is purely to offset costs.
''Certainly it's a way, especially with the budgets the way they are now and some of the tax proposals at the state level, for fire departments to keep on providing the level of service that the community expects,'' he said.
Hialeah approved the practice last year, and the first bills have gone out, Drozd said.
He estimated the billings will contribute $250,000 and $500,000 the first year to the city's $33 million fire-rescue budget, based on a collection rate of about 50 percent on 2,500 crashes.
The bills go to at-fault drivers or their car insurance company. If the driver has no insurance, the department will bill the driver directly, but it won't send an unpaid bill to a collection agency.
Most fire-rescue departments in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have avoided such fees so far, saying residents already pay for fire and police services through their property taxes.
And insurance officials complain the fees only drive up the cost of car insurance.
''Obviously, it is a new expense, and it is going to go into the auto insurance rate base,'' said Sam Miller, executive vice president of the Florida Insurance Council, an insurance trade association based in Tallahassee.
City leaders in Cocoa made the decision last month to start charging what the fire chief calls a ``user-based fee.''
Cocoa Fire Chief Ricky Plummer said the practice may help keep property taxes down.
''I just felt it was a good way to try to recoup some money,'' he said.
What's next, fees to report a crime? What will it be $5000 for a murder and $500 for burglary?
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