by Lou Binninger
In 2016, Marysville, CA., 12,000 plus in population and 3.6 sq. mi. in size, was going bankrupt following decades of businesses leaving the city. In spite of shouldering millions of dollars in devastating long-term real estate debt the city council determined to continue funding its own police and fire departments rather than contracting out for services.
On June 7, 2016 a majority of citizens voted to raise sales taxes 1% for 10 years to bring in $2 million plus annually to temporarily solve the short-fall caused by the bond debt, spiking unfunded pension liability and health premiums along with operating its own public safety services.
Since that time city hall has been looking for new revenue streams and to increase existing ones. One idea was to charge for public safety responses. It has begun.
On August 3, 2019, Marysville Fire Department (MFD) suppressed a garage fire at a duplex.
The owner’s insurance company, Allstate, then received a bill from Fire Recovery USA, LLC, a Roseville third party billing service, for the (MFD) fire response. The bill was for 3 engines ($455 per engine/hr), 1 fire truck ($568 per truck/hr), and 1 command on scene ($284/hr). The charge amounted to $2,217.00/hr. for 2.25 hrs. for a total of $4,988.25.
The duplex owner had never heard of such a charge though having been a property owner and taxpayer for decades with multiple Marysville properties. He was informed by MFD that it was a new program they were trying out. A call to Councilmember Bruce Buttacavoli got the charge reduced to $500 which the insurance company agreed to assume.
During the 1970s, a new legal theory emerged that enabled the collection of fees for emergency services. Charging for these services had been limited by the “free public services doctrine” or the “municipal cost recovery rule.” This doctrine stems from the notion that a governmental entity may not recover costs of public services incurred responding to an incident.
These costs were presumed to have already been borne by the public as a whole through taxation, and to allow the collection of such costs would constitute double recovery for the governmental entity or additional taxation.
However, the “free public services doctrine” has two major exceptions. First, “[a] municipal corporation may, however, avoid this non-recovery rule by statute.” Second, a governmental entity may recover emergency services costs “by alleging that the county utilized emergency services to protect property of its own.”
These exceptions have allowed jurisdictions to charge for not only structure and grass fires and hazardous waste spills, but also for medical emergencies. However, the court says that statutes must be in place to assess the charges.
Some states forbid charging for responses except for hazardous waste incidents. California statutes allow municipalities to bill for all emergency services.
One argument for service fees is that nonresidents who pay no taxes here should pay for the services provided by emergency responders. Another argument is that taxes no longer meet the cost of public safety agencies so the users of the service should pay a fee for usage, resident or not.
If Marysville is going to charge residents for medical emergencies it may want to give people an option to rely on Bi-County Ambulance (BCA) only since residents will be paying taxes, a separate response fee to MFD and the costs of BCA.
Currently BCA and MFD both respond to medical emergencies, but BCA has a paramedic (higher medical training) with each unit. Having both fire / rescue and an ambulance response is a redundancy created when firefighters unionized and wanted to justify higher salaries and benefits by adding medical responses to only fighting fires.
It now may be a luxury residents here can no longer afford. Many Marysville people may opt to make it to the hospital on their own or call BCA directly to avoid an extra response fee for MFD.
Since it is a new program maybe the council should make it clear to city residents by sending a “menu” of what future costs they may be incurring. Some cities charge $300 for responding to a medical emergency.
When firefighters basically just fought fires up to the 1970s they earned a pittance of their salaries today. In fact, most firefighters in the country are still volunteers. And, fires of all types have decreased dramatically.
However, now jurisdictions can’t add taxes, fees and charges fast enough to keep up with the $100-400 thousand salaries, health benefits and pensions for public safety people and administrators in rural California jurisdictions.
Even public safety people after retiring are fleeing the state to avoid the egregious taxes, fees and regulations.
(Get Lou’s podcast at “No Hostages Radio” and his articles at nohostageradio.com)