Watertown council asks for revisions to proposed fire billing ordinance

For the second time in as many meetings, the Watertown City Council discussed a potential Fire Department billing ordinance, but did not make a final decision.

Instead, the council directed city staff to bring the ordinance back at a future meeting after making possible revisions designed to better clarify who could and should receive bills for fire department services. The ordinance, which would allow the fire department to recoup costs for responding to automobile accidents and illegal, intentional  or unattended fires, was first brought before the council at its April 9 meeting.

Several council members expressed concerns with portions of the ordinance at that first meeting, particularly as it relates to unattended fires, and when residents should be required to pay additional costs besides what is already covered in taxes. Those were predominantly the same concerns last Tuesday, when the ordinance was ultimately voted down, 3-2, with the understanding that an amended version would be brought back before the council.

The proposed ordinance is based on a policy that has already been informally used by the fire department, and is used by many other cities as well. The ordinance would officially allow the fire department to bill $400 for responding to automobile crashes, a fee that is already built into most insurance policies. Fire Chief Wade Stock said at the first meeting that the fire department has already been able to collect that money in some instances, but not having a formal policy like many other cities has made it more difficult to collect at times.

In addition to vehicle accidents, however, the ordinance would also allow the fire department to bill to recoup costs associated with responding to illegal, intentional or unattended fires, and it was the last part that was most concerning to several council members. The amount of the bill would be based on the city’s annual fee schedule, which defines the hourly rate for personnel, as well as for the different pieces of equipment or vehicles the department may use in responding to a fire.

The council seemed to have no issues with billing for vehicle crashes or for illegal fires, but several council members seemed concerned with billing residents for fires that may have been unattended, but were an honest mistake by a generally conscientious person.

“This is a very difficult ordinance for me,” councilor Steve Washburn said. “If its something illegal and somebody does something intentionally, I’m all for (billing for) that. But I’m very concerned about the openendedness of the ordinance, and the ultimate costs that could be borne by an individual, especially on the more negligent side of this, the more accidental side of this. I really struggle with that. We all makes mistakes from time to time. We all pay taxes for these types of services.”

Councilor Michael Walters, along with Mayor Charlotte Johnson, also voted against the ordinance. Walters had concerns with the exact defnition of an unattended fire, and noted there was a difference between somebody who started a fire and completely left, and somebody who started a fire and just ran inside for a moment.

“If somebody lights a fire and then runs inside and gets marshmallows, that’s a whole different story,” said Walters, who believes such an inadvertent mistake should not warrant additional billing from the fire department. “If someone lit a candle in their living room and they’re in their bedroom, is that an unattended fire? It’s certainly intentionally lit. It seems like there are circumstances that shouldn’t necessarily fall into (the ordinance).”

After rejecting the ordinance, the council asked city administrator Luke Fischer to look into adding language that would define a possible appeals process for those who receives bills, and to better clarify and define unattended fires.


In other business:

• The city council decided not to make an exception for a resident that challenged the city’s policy of shutting off utilities for delinquent accounts.

The resident first attended the regular city council meeting on April 9, asking for the money she was required to pay in order to have her services re-connected to be refunded. The city charges $150 to re-connect to water service and another $150 to reconnect to sewer services. The resident said none of the letters she received specified a date for her impending shutoff, and if it had, she would have paid her balance before that time.

The council, after hearing her arguments, decided to take more time to consider her points and review the city’s policy. But at last week’s meeting, the council decided that the city had actually gone above and beyond in terms of leniency compared to what the ordinance requires, sending numerous letters through both regular and certified mail that notified property owners of the delinquency of their accounts, the impending shutoff, and the fees to reconnect. In fairness to residents who pay their bills on time and to others who had already settled past due accounts in order to avoid shutoffs, the council declined to make an exception.

• The council scheduled a workshop for Monday, May 6, and a special meeting for Tuesday, May 7, both at 5:30 p.m., to discus project alternatives for the 2014 bridge and intersection project. Though the public is invited to attend both meetings and workshops, the intent is for these meetings to be for the council to discus the alternatives without public comment, which was taken at two previous open houses, and will be taken again at a May 14 public hearing.

• The council heard a presentation from Tim Litfin of the Tour DeTonka bike ride. The ride, scheduled for August 3, will once again proceed through Watertown, with the 100 and 77 mile routes both coming through town.

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]