Council delays action on emergency response fee plan

City and county residents confronted the Crescent City Council on Monday night over a proposal to charge fees for emergency response to structure fires and traffic collisions.

At a public hearing, residents said they favored the city's proposed plan to charge for false alarms and 911 hang-ups. But they balked at the idea of the city charging for response to fires and traffic collisions despite city staff's assertion that most homeowner's and driver's insurance policies would cover such fees.

After hearing from about 10 people, the Council voted to continue the issue to its Jan. 22 meeting in the hopes that more residents would provide input.

City staff members proposed the emergency response fee ordinance in response to the City Council's 2012 strategic plan, which calls for finding additional revenue sources, City Manager Eugene Palazzo said. The fees would only apply to structure fires, traffic collisions, false alarms and 911 hang-ups within city limits.

Under the proposed ordinance, a homeowner whose house catches on fire could be charged a $423 fee for up to three hours of response from the Crescent City Volunteer Fire Department. The homeowner could be charged $70 an hour 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 ordinance would also establish a fee for commercial structure fires.

The 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 extrication at accident scenes. The charge would be levied against the party at fault or all parties if fault isn't determined in the collision.

As for 911 hang-ups and false alarms, a fee would only be levied if there is a department response, City Attorney Bob Black said when he introduced the ordinance at the Council's Nov. 19 meeting. 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 city staff has been researching an emergency response fee ordinance since 2009, Black said.

During Monday's public hearing, residents living within city limits and in the county spoke, including Crescent City Harbor Commissioner James Ramsey and District 1 Supervisor-elect Roger Gitlin.

Ramsey, who lives in the county, pointed out that the recent passage of state Proposition 30 will increase revenue to the city and the county in addition to saving the school district from mid-year budget cuts. He encouraged Council members to wait and see what the state Legislature does before passing the ordinance.

"If my house were to burn down and I was asked to pay another $450, that would leave a bad taste in my mouth," Ramsey said. "I would ask you to use patience as a better part of valor and take another look two months down the road."

Gitlin, who lives in the city, said the proposed ordinance starts off well intentioned with the plan to charge a fee for response to false alarms and 911 hang-ups. But he said he feared that the proposed fees for structure fires and traffic collisions would deter people from using police or fire services.

"The proposed ordinance takes a left turn and appears to be a money grab (on those) guilty of nothing more than needing those services," he said.

County resident JoAnne Smith pointed out that in the down economy, many people are choosing not to pay for homeowners' insurance. Some, she said, can't even afford auto insurance.

"These extra levies are hitting us hard," she said.

Council members for the most part were also supportive of charging for false alarms and 911 hang-ups, but had reservations about the rest of the ordinance. Mayor Richard Enea said Crescent City firefighters responded to two residential fires so far this year and three in 2011.

Councilman Ron Gastineau, responding to Enea's comment, said he felt passing the ordinance would create a high emotional cost that isn't worth any actual revenue it may generate.

"We're not going to make a lot of money off of it," he said, referring to the ordinance.

Councilwoman Kelly Schellong said she didn't feel that the proposed fee ordinance should be adopted immediately.

"If this is an assessment, city voters should have the opportunity to vote on it," she said. "In my heart I don't agree with charging for fires or motor vehicle accidents."

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