Fire Departments Charge for Service, Asking Accident Victims to Pay Up

Villeneuve said he fought the bill with the township of Bellevue and the fire board. He was able to get the charge for the fire truck taken off, but was stuck with the remaining $195 tab and was threatened with collections when he refused to pay.

He gave in, saying, "$195 isn't much to fight for. Not even to get to a lawyer for. They called me disgruntled and everything."

So a few days before Christmas, Villeneuve paid his bill in person -- in pennies, all 117 pounds of them.

He wondered why departments that operate on a volunteer basis are allowed to charge at all.

"A volunteer is a volunteer. That kind of makes me scratch my head a little bit on that," he said.

Fire Department Chief: 'We Are Trying to Do the Right Thing'

While many of the departments that have hired billling companies to collect on their newly imposed fees are volunteer, it's a measure many professional departments are turning to as well and not just for house fires.

Sam Sorich, president of the Association of California Insurance Companies, said most of the new service charges he's seeing in his state are for car accident fees.

"We've seen quite a bit of activity in California," he said, estimating up to 60 municipalities and fire districts in the state now bill for services once deemed to be free. Most have programs that charge drivers if they are insured, assuming their policies will cover it, and waive the fee if the drivers are uninsured, which infuriates the insurance companies.

"It seems very unfair," Sorich said. "First of all, we think the whole process is unfair, but this is particularly unfair."

The Association of California Insurance Companies -- which runs the opposition Web site CalCrashTax.com -- lobbied for a bill to ban fire service charges last year, but the bill fell apart before it went to a vote.

"We believe these services should be paid by taxes," he said. "This is government service."

Dale Henson, chief of the Decatur Township Fire Department in Indiana, said taxes just aren't enough anymore to provide the services people expect.

Last year, his department decided to start charging $750 for extrications after car accidents. The department also had to borrow money to cover it's $1.3 million budget shortfall.

"Is it right or wrong? I don't see a problem with it," Henson said. "They're putting caps on taxes and all that, but yet we still have budget we've got to meet."

For Henson, the extra fees are not pouring in. Despite being dispatched for 41 extrications, his department collected just $1,100 in service charges for car accidents and house fires. The department hired a billing company, but Henson admitted he hadn't followed up to see why more money wasn't coming in.

"People want the same service, but we're not getting the same revenue," he said. "So we've got to get creative.

"I feel we are trying to do the right thing," Henson said. "We are not trying to just take more money from taxpayers."

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