St. Andrews OKs charging out-of-district drivers for wrecks

St. Andrew's Public Service District is implementing a fee commonly called a crash tax for emergency response calls for those people living outside of the district.

Having an automobile accident in the St. Andrews Public Service District could get a little more expensive in a month or so.

Or it may not, as officials said the district said will not collect a new fee if insurance companies do not pay it.

After many months of discussion, the St. Andrews Public Service District on Monday gave unanimous approval to a Motor Vehicle Accident Service Fee that would let the district charge drivers who live outside the district - regardless of whether they are at fault - if the district's fire department responds to a motor vehicle accident.

It could bill for responding to accidents in the St. Andrews PSD or in any of the districts with which it has a mutual aid agreement: James Island Public Service District, City of Charleston, City of North Charleston and St. John's Fire District.

"We are not interested in gouging anybody or excessively charging," said district manager Christie Holderness. "We absolutely do not swoop in to answer calls. (The fee) is simply for the response that our fire department provides."

Even though the district is hiring a third-party billing company, officials said that if insurance companies do not cover the fee and drivers refuse to pay, they will not turn it over to a collection agency.

"It's a soft bill and we are going to try to use our heads on this thing," said commission chairman Charlie Ledford. "We're not going to send people knocking on doors trying to collect money from them."

The fee, commonly known as a "crash fee" or "crash tax," is estimated to range from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand depending on which emergency vehicles respond.

Thirty departments in South Carolina currently charge such a fee, Holderness said. Dorchester County tabled the issue in February.

The fee has been controversial because insurance representatives said the fee is generally not covered under standard policies.

"We are disappointed in the commission's decision," said Jeff Griffith, who represents the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. "The vote tonight is a setback for motorists throughout the Charleston area. While we understand budgets are tight and local officials are looking for ways to increase revenue without increasing taxes, charging for emergency services is not the right approach."

He said 14 states have banned the fees in some instances, and it might be time for South Carolina to consider doing so, too, in an effort to keep costs consistent throughout the state.

"I think it is important that our legislature take a look at whether our state wants to have a hodge-podge system or a unified system," he said.

Ledford said he can understand the insurance industry's fears.

"They are trying to keep their profits up, I'm sure, and I share some of their concerns, but I think it will work out," he said. "From what I've been told and what we've seen, it won't be terrible for them and it will help us generate some income. I wasn't really in favor of (the fee) in the beginning, but if everything falls into place like they say, I think it will be OK."

The move is necessary because the district's call volume has increased from less than 1,000 calls in 2009 to almost 5,300 in 2013 due to the mutual aid agreement, which calls for them to be simultaneously dispatched with the four other departments to help with fires and other emergencies.

The district needs to find alternate ways to raise money because it relies solely on property taxes to fund its operations, said Holderness. 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.

"We are not in (financial) distress," Holderness said. "We are very efficient in our budget and we are very cost-conscious, short of being frugal."

She said the fee was first introduced in August as a way to start using a Quick Response Vehicle, a sports utility vehicle outfitted to respond to emergencies. The district does not currently have a QRV, officials said.

"If we can send a QRV to provide the same service (as a fire truck), then that will help cut some of our costs," she said.

Ledford agreed.

"We want to be more efficient when we respond to accidents and right now, we just can't do that," he said. "It would be a lot less expensive to send a Tahoe or an Expedition or something like that out there versus half a million dollar or a million dollar fire truck. "

Officials said it would be at least 30 days until the fee goes into effect, as the district has not yet worked out details with its third-party billing agency.

St. Andrews has discussed the proposed ordinance since August. It was deferred in January for legal advice and the commission did not meet in February. The ordinance was tabled in March and again in April.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.