Proposal would set charges for fires, wrecks, false alarms

Probably the last thing a resident needs after a home burns down is a $423 bill from the city. But a proposed ordinance may leave homeowners on the hook for the emergency response and the water it took to knock down the blaze.

The Crescent City Council on Monday unanimously agreed to hear from the public on an ordinance that would allow the city to charge for emergency response to false alarms, structure fires and traffic collisions. The ordinance is designed to be a cost-recovery measure for the city, according to City Attorney Bob Black. The staff has been researching an emergency response fee ordinance since 2009, Black said.

Under the proposed ordinance, a homeowner whose house catches on fire may be charged a fee of $423 for up to three hours of response from the Crescent City Volunteer Fire Department. The homeowner could be charged $70 for each additional hour. He or she could also be charged for the water and supplies used and any equipment that may be damaged, according to a draft fee schedule.

The proposed ordinance would also establish a fee of $101 for scene safety, assessment and the investigation of a traffic collision. The city could also charge $161 for fire suppression, medical aid and extraction if the Council passes the ordinance. The charge would be levied against the party at fault or all parties if no one is at fault in the collision.

As for 911 hang-ups and false alarms, a fee would only be levied if there is a department response, Black said. Under the proposed ordinance, a warning would be given for the first offense and, in the case of a false burglar alarm, a second offense.

The draft fee schedule submitted to the Council on Monday is a staff recommendation, Black said. Whether any fees are established and what those fees are is up to the City Council.

The ordinance would also establish an appeals process headed by Crescent City Manager Eugene Palazzo. The Council will discuss the issue again at its Dec. 3 meeting.

On Monday night, Councilwoman Kelly Schellong said she would hate to levy such a large fee on people who lost their home. She also brought up the outcry against Cal Fire's new annual fire fee, saying the community might not support the proposed emergency response fee.

"I just can't fathom our community being comfortable with that," Schellong said. "I know staff has put some thought into this, but I think there needs to be a lot more input from the community before we move forward."

Many homeowner insurance policies cover fees imposed as a result of the emergency response to a structure fire, said Crescent City Fire Chief Steve Wakefield in response to Schellong's comment. He added that actually imposing a fee for a structure fire, a false alarm or a 911 hang-up would be at the discretion of the Fire Department and the city.

"If a 5-year-old calls 911 are we going to charge Mom and Dad?" Wakefield said. "Not the first time and probably not the second time."

Black said any bill a motorist receives from the city as a result of a vehicle collision can be submitted to his or her insurance company for reimbursement similar to a towing bill or an ambulance bill.

Crescent City pays through its insurance rates for its emergency response service, Black said. But without an ordinance in place it can't bill for that service, he said. Black added that in a recent fire that damaged the Masonic Family Center in Crescent City, the city could have collected $3,500-$3,600 in fees. A 12-year-old boy was convicted of felony arson in August in connection with that fire.

"If we're buying our insurance from State Farm, we're paying for other cities to collect that amount of money from State Farm around the state, but just not in our community" Black said. "To collect this fee a few times over the course of the year is not a big impact on the city's budget, but it does enable the city to do a little bit more and do a little bit better in terms of emergency response," he said.

If a homeowner didn't have insurance that would cover a fee for the fire suppression, Black said the city would probably bill them, but would likely not pursue the matter in court. The cost of trying to pursue the matter in court would likely outweigh the outstanding fee, he said.

Crescent City Police Chief Doug Plack said his officers start rolling even if they find out ahead of arrival that the alarm is false.

"From Nov. 19, 2011, to this year we've had 224 false alarms that the Police Department rolled to," he said, adding that he was in favor of the emergency response fee. "Every time an officer puts on his overhead lights and sirens it puts everybody in jeopardy, so that needs to be cut down as much as we possibly can."

Sixteen local businesses were the main culprits for those 224 false alarms, Plack said. In the case of false robbery or panic alarms the police department may respond along with officers from the California Highway Patrol and the Del Norte County Sheriff's Office. He added that he thinks the proposed fees would be especially effective for those who don't care if the alarm goes off or don't want to inform law enforcement that the alarm is false.

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Proposed emergency response user fees include:

False burglary alarms

First and second, warning; third, $75; fourth, $125; fifth and all additional, $200

False robbery/panic alarms

First, $75; second, $125; third, $200; fourth and all additional, $350

andbull; False residential and commercial fire alarms

First, warning; second, $150 fire fee, $100 police fee

andbull; 911 hang-up

First, warning; second, $100

andbull; Structure fires

Residential, $423 for first three hours; $70 per additional hour

Commercial: $830 for first five hours; $110 per additional hour

Commercial water rate fees

Actual cost of damaged equipment and supplies

andbull; Motor vehicle collision

$101 for scene safety, assessment and investigation; $161 for fire suppression, medical aid or extraction; actual cost of lost or damaged equipment; actual cost of supplies used

andbull; Other

Utility emergency standby, $161; emergency inspection $41 per hour