SUMMERVILLE - The "crash tax" could be headed to a car wreck near you. Dorchester County has become the latest jurisdiction to consider charging hundred of dollars to have fire trucks and equipment respond to accidents.
More than two dozen jurisdictions or departments in the state already do, most in the Upstate. The St. Andrews Fire Department in West Ashley will hold a public hearing on doing it at its April meeting, after putting off a decision last week. Hampton County and the town of Hampton have established the fees, and the town has begun billing, according County Administrator Sabrena Graham.
In Dorchester County, the fees could range from about $300 to more than $2,000 per hour per vehicle and piece of equipment used. Extrication devices, popularly known as "Jaws of Life," would be among the most costly.
The fees would be charged to insurance companies of non-residents who are at fault for the wrecks, said Tres Atkinson, Dorchester County fire chief. He has his eye on Interstate 95, where county departments respond to any number of wrecks involving out-of-county residents who don't pay for the services.
A recent analysis of those calls over a three-month period showed the county could have brought in as much as $30,000 in fees, he said.
"It's another source of revenue," Atkinson said. "We're a (newly consolidated) department looking to provide more service without costing the taxpayers more money."
Dorchester County Council has sent the proposal to committee for study, and Chairman Bill Hearn said it looks good so far. When it comes to the expense of providing emergency services, "a little bit of recoupment goes a long way," he said.
The idea of charging recovery fees began to percolate among fire departments after the 2008 economic meltdown disrupted the tax revenue that paid for them. The North County Fire District, near San Diego, was among the earliest to do it, said Chief Bill Metcalf, who also is the International Association of Fire Chiefs president.
Departments grappled with a "huge drop in revenues in the face of pressure to maintain services," he said. Looking for revenue, they realized that many auto insurance companies cover the payment.
"That's what the (insurance) customer is buying. We were giving a gift to the insurance companies," he said.
Some 50 to 100 departments in California alone now charge for the services, he said. The fees being looked at by Dorchester County are in line with what other departments charge.
Dorchester County would hire a third-party vendor to handle the billing and collection process, Atkinson said. St. Andrews also is considering a third-party vendor.
Russ Dubisky, executive director of the South Carolina Insurance News Service, said 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.
Metcalf said the fire chiefs' association has taken no position on charging the fees. The association's website provides an overview of the fees and issues involved so that its members understand their options, he said.
Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.
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