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Fire department fees: An abdication of government

It's absurd to charge motorists when the fire department shows up at the scene of an accident.

July 26, 2010

Democrats and Republicans validly debate the size and reach of government. But certain services have always been considered fundamental. During California's pioneer days, rudimentary municipal services sprang up when communities of settlers agreed to chip in to provide common law enforcement, fire protection and, usually, basic public education.

In the latest efforts to close the gaps in public budgets, though, an increasing number of California cities are ripping holes in the fabric of local government. More than two dozen municipalities, including Stockton and Roseville, now charge motorists who are involved in auto accidents that require the fire department to respond to the scene. That might be for emergency rescue or putting out a fire with foam. Some charge anyone involved in a crash; many levy a fee only on nonresidents who have the bad luck to be in an accident in such inhospitable locales.

Several municipalities bill only insured motorists, on the assumption that insurance companies will cover the cost. That's particularly wrongheaded because it rewards people who illegally fail to insure their vehicles.

On July 1, the Placer County Fire Department began charging nonresidents; and now Sacramento, the seat of state government, is considering doing the same. The fees are being pushed by collection agencies that take on the task of billing motorists or their insurance companies for a percentage of the take. The insurance industry, of course, objects.

This time, the insurers have it right. Some companies don't cover these bills, and as the number of localities imposing them grows, more insurers will probably either exclude the fees or raise premiums. In the end, all drivers pay, including those who never visit those places and who never experience an accident.

Cities that impose such fees are abandoning the commitment to the common good that inspired people to form fire departments in the first place: the idea that we should all share the cost of putting out fires, of rescuing the injured and trapped. What's more, they give fire departments a financial incentive to show up whether or not they're needed; every accident represents a potential source of revenue. And what's the accident victim supposed to say? Go away, I can't afford the jaws of life?

These new fees subvert the tradition of mutual aid, in which law enforcement and fire agencies assist each other in providing services; each municipality guards the safety of the public within its borders, even if the individuals involved live and pay property taxes elsewhere. If fees like these are justified, the logical next step is to charge tourists $300 for the arrest of the mugger who just robbed them of $40.

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