Service calls

If approved, a proposed ordinance would allow the St. Andrews Public Service District to charge non-residents the following fees for responding to motor vehicle accidents:

$300 for a fire engine and crew

$350 for a rescue crew

$350 for a ladder crew

Billing would be on a per-unit basis.

St. Andrews fire trucks could soon turn into roving revenue generators under a proposal that would allow the public service district to bill crash victims hundreds of dollars for responding to car wrecks all over the Charleston area.

St. Andrews officials are mulling a proposed ordinance that would allow them to charge $300 to $1,000 or more per call in service fees for responding to wrecks involving people who don't live in the public service district. That proposal could go for a final vote Monday night.

The fees, a rarity in South Carolina, would apply not only to crashes within the district's West Ashley boundaries, but to all motor vehicle calls in which St. Andrews fire crews respond in Charleston, North Charleston, James Island and the St. Johns Fire District, which covers portions of Johns Island and Kiawah and Seabrook islands, according to the proposed ordinance.

St. Andrews has automatic aid agreements with all those departments, meaning they roll to each other's calls as a matter of course to ensure a timely and sufficient response to emergencies.

If the ordinance passes as proposed, St. Andrews would charge residents of those other areas for aid at accident scenes while continuing to enjoy assistance from surrounding departments at no cost. And that doesn't sit well with some of the district's partners.

St. Andrews District Manager Christie Holderness said automatic aid has been a benefit for the district, but it also has resulted in a significant increase in calls, driving up expenses that place a financial burden on its citizens. She said the district has a small tax base and needs the money the fees would generate to offset the added expense.

A third-party vendor would be hired to handle the billing and collection process.

"This is a way for us to cover the costs of the hundreds of runs we have to make that our residents essentially have to pay for," Holderness said.

Other fire departments in the partnership said they have no plans to follow St. Andrews' lead and charge reciprocal fees of their own. So far, St. Andrews' partners haven't said much publicly about the measure, though some fire officials harbor concerns.

St. Johns Fire Chief Colleen Walz questioned the fairness of subjecting her constituents to extra fees that St. Andrews citizens wouldn't have to pay. Though the fee would likely be covered by the accident victim's car insurance, she and others worry that could drive up insurance rates for their citizens.

"That's not what I would want to see happen," Walz said. "And it's not in the foundation of the automatic aid agreement, which is really a good-faith agreement where we do right by the public we serve by sending the closest available units to an emergency."

Walz said there is concern over how the ordinance would affect response, and whether St. Andrews might swoop in to take crash calls in another department's territory to generate revenue. Municipal fire departments were created, in part, to eliminate these sort of issues, she said.

"It alleviated that battling for incidents, racing to calls based on generating revenue," she said. "It also provided for a stable, consistent service, regardless of the ability of someone to pay an insurance premium to a particular company."

Russ Dubisky, executive director of the South Carolina Insurance News Service, said Hampton County is the only community in the state to approve charging accident-response fees, but he's unaware of that county having billed anyone. Hampton County officials did not return calls seeking comment on their fee plan.

Dubisky said he has not seen the St. Andrews proposal, but the insurance industry generally is wary of such plans, as they have the potential to drive up rates. "Insurance companies have to cover their losses from somewhere," he said.

Municipalities in about 27 states around the country have taken up billing drivers or their insurance companies for responding to traffic wrecks, but 12 states, including Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, have banned the practice, according to the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies.

New York City was among some 35 municipalities that abandoned plans for the so-called "crash taxes" after getting backlash from citizens who viewed the move as a form of double taxation, said Liz Reynolds, the organization's state affairs director for the Southeast.

"There is generally an expectation that these are services that someone pays taxes to the government to receive," she said.

Benefit and burden

Area fire officials widely praise the benefits that automatic aid has brought to the region, but the fee issue illustrates the potential for wrinkles in the plan when large, well-funded municipalities are paired with smaller communities with fewer resources to meet their share of the burden.

The St. Andrews Public Service District, created in 1949, provides fire protection, garbage collection and street lighting to about 22,000 people in West Ashley. About $4.3 million of its $6 million annual budget goes to its fire department, Holderness said.

The district's fire department was an early champion of automatic aid, and the PSD joined with four area departments in July 2012 to sign a formal agreement pledging to work hand-in-hand. No longer would they have to request mutual aid from each other. Instead, neighboring districts' units would be simultaneously dispatched to help with fires and other emergencies.

The deal essentially created a department of 800 firefighters who train together, use the same radio codes and follow the same procedures. Under the pact, each department is responsible for covering the costs of its own crews, though exceptions can be made for some hazardous-materials incidents.

Therein lies the rub for St. Andrews.

Unlike neighboring municipalities with access to various revenue streams, the public service district relies solely on property taxes to fund its operations, Holderness said. In 2013, the owner of a $150,000 home in the district paid about $375 annually in taxes to receive its services, according to Charleston County records.

While trying to keep taxes down, the cost of fuel, vehicle maintenance and medical supplies have skyrocketed for the district, with fuel expenses alone jumping 85 percent over the past five years, Holderness said. At the same time, the number of calls for fire department assistance has jumped dramatically since the district began participating in mutual aid in 2009, followed by automatic aid three years later, she said.

The fire department responded to 5,284 calls in 2013 - a 339 percent increase from 2008, the year before mutual aid began, Holderness said. She said she had no way of determining the total cost this has imposed on the district or exactly what their expenses have been tied to automatic aid. They also have no projections for how much money the proposed fees would raise.

Others satisfied

The four other fire departments in the mix said their costs, on balance, have been offset by the help they've received through automatic aid. None are considering charging fees to respond to their neighbors' calls.

North Charleston Fire Chief Greg Bulanow said the pact has helped reduce response times to emergencies, and the regular interaction among departments has created a firefighting force that "works together seamlessly at major incidents."

"We are very satisfied with what we get versus what we give," he said.

James Island Public Service District Fire Chief Chris Seabolt agreed, saying his department has not found the aid agreement to be a burden. "For us, it's been about neutral," he said in terms of call numbers. "And it's been a huge help to us and our residents."

Charleston fire officials had no comment on the proposal.

The proposed St. Andrews fee ordinance was introduced in October but was pulled from consideration in January for additional legal review. The results of that review are to presented to the public service district commission Monday in executive session, meaning the public won't be privy to the discussion. Holderness said it's unclear whether the commission will vote on the measure following the discussion.

Holderness said she has heard rumors of some concerns about the ordinance, but no one from the public or surrounding fire departments has questioned her or the commissioners about the proposal, "nor has there been a comment, complaint, or question addressed in writing - ever."

Commissioner Nancy Calvary refused to discuss the matter when contacted, while colleague Regan Blanchard referred questions to commission chairman Charlie Ledford. Neither Ledford nor commissioner John DeStefano returned calls from The Post and Courier last week seeking comment. Commissioner Chris Perot could not be reached for comment.

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.