Fla. town to impose traffic accident fee


Susannah BryanSouth Florida Sun-Sentinel | | Tuesday, June 26, 2007

DAVIE, Fla. Passing through? Better drive carefully.

Davie may soon impose fees on motorists cited in traffic accidents on state highways and county roads. Proponents say the fee would help recoup the cost of the town's police and fire services at a time municipalities are bracing for state-imposed tax cuts.

A proposal tentatively approved by Town Council members last week would let the town bill insurance companies of residents and nonresidents. Should a resident's insurance company refuse to pay the claim, the town would write off the charge. But nonresidents would get a bill.

"It's a last-ditch effort to raise money in case the state comes down on us like a sledgehammer," said Vice Mayor Bryan Caletka, an opponent. "It doesn't really matter to me if it's a Davie resident or an alien resident. It seems like you're kicking a person while they're down. They just had an accident and you're going to charge them for having our police and fire come out to help them."

Davie joins a number of cities in Florida and around the country that have embraced the practice or are considering similar fees. In one instance, a Pennsylvania township imposed the fee, then dropped it because of negative publicity.

The fee would apply only to the driver cited in the accident. If several drivers were cited, they would split the bill. Uninsured motorists and drivers who successfully fought the citations in court would not be charged. Nonresidents who refused to pay the fee would risk damaging their credit reports, a town consultant said.

The average fee, which does not include ambulance transport fees, would start at $600 for fire service and $240 for police, with increases based on time and equipment used, said Regina Moore, president of Cost Recovery Corp., the Ohio-based firm hired to help implement the plan. She estimated that if both police and fire-rescue responded, the average bill would come to $840. The fees would also apply when Davie responded to accidents outside town limits.

Davie Police Chief John George referred questions about the fee proposal to Fire Chief Donald DiPetrillo. The fire chief could not be reached for comment despite three phone messages.

The measure would bring in an estimated $750,000 a year to town coffers. It was approved 3-1, with Caletka voting no; Councilman Michael Crowley did not vote. A second vote is expected later this month.

Councilwoman Susan Starkey said she favors the plan as a way to recover the cost of all the accidents the town must respond to.

Because Davie is bordered by several major highways, including Interstate 595 and I-75, the Florida Turnpike and State Road 84, its fire and police departments are often the first responders to accidents on those roads, Starkey said. A mutual aid agreement with neighboring cities such as Cooper City and Sunrise requires the town's public safety departments to respond to crashes outside its limits, and the town receives help when needed from the neighbors.

Who pays for Davie's end of the deal? The town's taxpayers, Starkey said.

"Our residents won't be the ones who scream about this," she added. "They feel they are unfairly funding services for people who don't live in the town."

Insurance companies aren't keen on the idea.

Adam Shores, an Allstate Insurance Co. spokesman based in St. Petersburg, called the practice unfair, comparing the fees to a hidden tax.

Local governments already budget for public safety using taxpayers' money, Shores said. "When you have municipalities that want to pass the costs of these services onto insurers, those costs are going to get passed onto consumers. So you have people paying twice for the same service."

Interim Town Attorney James Cherof told council members he would review the ordinance to ensure it does not attract court challenges. "For it to be legal, it would have to apply equally to everyone," said Chris Neal, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance Co. in Winter Haven. "In the state of Florida, you can't discriminate based on the type of insurance you have or where you live."

"It's not a Florida-only phenomenon," said Neal, noting that other municipalities in the nation have imposed or considered similar fees.

Radnor Township, near Philadelphia, imposed such a fee in 2006, then ended the program in February after months of bad publicity.

But cities such as Winter Park and Toledo, Ohio, have embraced the practice of charging user fees after accidents. Tampa and major cities such as Boston and Detroit are researching the idea, Moore said.

On Wednesday, Mayor Tom Truex said although he voted for the proposal, he still wasn't convinced it's best for the town.

"There are so many municipalities in South Florida," Truex said. "So if we start charging Pembroke Pines residents, do they start charging us when we go into their city limits?"

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