Third time isn’t the charm for fire billing ordinance

The third try wasn’t the charm for a fire billing ordinance brought before the Watertown City Council that would have allowed the fire department to bill insurance companies or residents for costs related to vehicle accidents or illegal, intentional or unattended fires.

Fire Chief Wade Stock first brought the proposed ordinance to the City Council during the first meeting in April, but the council, far from a consensus, decided to take more time to consider the proposal. At the second meeting in April, the council again decided not to pass the ordinance, but did so with the understanding that city administrator Luke Fischer would make changes to the policy to better clarify the definition of unattended fires and to add language defining a formal appeals process for residents facing bills.

But during the May 12 meeting, with the amended bill up for consideration, it was finally put to a vote, which ended in a 2-2 deadlock, finally killing the proposal. Councilor Stephen Crowder, who had previously expressed at least general support for the measure, was absent from last week’s meeting.

Councilors Steve Washburn and Michael Walters voted against the measure, again citing uneasiness with the idea of potentially billing residents for services that they pay for in their taxes. In most cases, especially in cases of vehicle accidents, those charges would be covered by insurance, but Washburn was still concerned about those who may not have insurance or may have minimal policies.

Mayor Charlotte Johnson and councilor Adam Pawelk voted for the ordinance. Pawelk argued that while residents do pay for fire department services in their taxes, it is unfair to continually ask conscientious residents to foot the bill for the increasing costs of fire department services when the negligent residents that drive up those costs could be paying a higher share through fees.

Johnson seemed to agree with Pawelk’s argument.

“Should we raise taxes to help fund the fire department, or should we have a fee for those who may be negligent?” she asked.

The ordinance, seemingly somewhat mundane when first brought before the council, turned out to be one of the most debated issues in front of the council this year, excluding ongoing bridge discussions. The ordinance would have allowed the fire department to charge a flat $400 fee for any vehicle accidents it responds too — there were 15 such instances in 2012 — and a fee based on the city’s annual rate structure for personnel hours and equipment usage as it relates to responding to illegal, intentional or unattended fires.

While a city’s authority to bill for fire calls was for many years unclear, that authority was granted by legislation in 2003, and many cities do bill for those services. Fischer said that in a quick sampling of nearby cities, it was found that Mayer bills for vehicle accidents, Carver bills for both accidents and fires, and Chanhassen, Waconia and Delano bill for neither of those. Other Carver County cities were also contacted, but did not respond prior to last Tuesday’s meeting.

 

Contact Matt Bunke at matt.bunke@ecm-inc.com

 
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