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North Whidbey Fire District bills for accident calls rack up $28,000 so far this year

Expensive rescue operations that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars, such as the one that took place at Deception Pass Bridge last month when two men attempted to cross the span using the girders underneath, may not be free forever. North Whidbey Fire and Rescue recently adopted a policy to seek financial reimbursement from the driver’s of motor vehicle accidents. If the program works well, the district may consider charging for rescues as well. - Photo by Matt Buchholz, North Whidbey Fire and Rescue
Expensive rescue operations that cost taxpayers thousands of dollars, such as the one that took place at Deception Pass Bridge last month when two men attempted to cross the span using the girders underneath, may not be free forever. North Whidbey Fire and Rescue recently adopted a policy to seek financial reimbursement from the driver’s of motor vehicle accidents. If the program works well, the district may consider charging for rescues as well.
— image credit: Photo by Matt Buchholz, North Whidbey Fire and Rescue

For some Island County residents, a moment’s inattention behind the wheel is now a lot more expensive.

This past December, the North Whidbey Fire District’s Board of Commissioners adopted a policy to seek financial reimbursement from people involved in motor vehicle accidents. The policy, which launched in March, is beginning to pay off.

“We have over $28,000 at the moment,” Chief Marv Koorn said.

That’s the amount the department has billed in the four months since the policy went into effect. It does not include another 13 claims – worth up to $15,000 – that have yet to be filed.

The program, which only applies to the motor vehicle accidents the district responds to, works by seeking reimbursement from the responsible driver’s insurance company. The value of the call is calculated using a rate schedule recommended by the Washington Fire Chiefs Association that factors in the number of vehicles and firefighters that respond and the amount of time they spend on scene.

The actual collection is done by EF Recovery, a national collection agency based in Gig Harbor that specializes in working with municipal and volunteer fire departments. Their fee is a 14 percent charge added to the total cost.

As of Friday, July 2, only $1,582 of the more than $28,000 billed had been collected. The difference is mainly due to delays associated with claims to insurance companies, Koorn said.

The policy was approved to help address budget problems plaguing the district. According to Koorn, the department has struggled to meet operating expenses, which increase 5 percent annually, in the face of a state law that limits governments from raising taxes more than 1 percent per year without voter approval.

The district did ask voters for a levy increase twice in 2008 but both attempts were overwhelming defeated, with 63 percent voting “no” on the February ballot and 66 percent voting “no” in November.

In 2009, the district’s total operating budget was $1.29 million. The new financial recovery policy will not solve all the district’s funding problems but it should enable the department to operate in the black for the next five years, Koorn said.

North Whidbey firefighters respond to about 200 motor vehicle accidents each year, and it’s estimated that each costs an average of about $1,000. If the math holds true, the new policy means big bucks for the district.

“That’s an increase of $200,000 to our budget,” Koorn said.

It’s also enough to raise the interest of officials from other cash-strapped public agencies. Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, who could lose up to 10 of his 38 officers due to a projected $1.2 million county budget shortfall in 2011, applauded the fire district for “looking outside the box.”

However, he questioned whether such a policy would be appropriate for his department. The role of his office is to serve and the public pays for that service. Charging them a second time for certain calls may not be ethical.

“I’m not sure that’s fair,” Brown said.

According to Koorn, fire districts can only tax for their fire services but they respond to a myriad of calls, from car accidents and hazardous material spills to rescuing cats in trees. The policy is a means of leveling the financial playing field, he said.

Depending on how it goes, the district could begin to charge for other services as well. For example, the rescue of two people who attempted to cross Deception Pass Bridge by climbing on the girders underneath cost the district about $3,000. Charging for rescues like that would be a likely next step, Koorn said.

But Brown may be right to have concerns. Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks said the sheriff’s office may not have the statutory authority to bill residents for any of its services.

“That’s their job and that’s what their taxes pay for,” Banks said.

State law does allow law enforcement agencies to recover up to $1,000 of their costs from people convicted of driving under the influence. Brown has discussed the possible revenue source with Banks but it was ultimately rejected on the basis that the costs of administering the program would be greater than the funds received.

North Whidbey is currently the only fire district in Island County to charge for its services, but it may not be forever. H.L. “Rusty” Palmer, chief of Island County Fire District 3 on South Whidbey, said the practice is becoming more common both across the state and nationally. The economic downturn is affecting everyone, and he is no exception. However, while he called the idea “intriguing,” he said he will wait to see how the program goes on North Whidbey before he brings a similar program to his board of commissioners.

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