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Drivers, insurance companies rebel against 'crash tax'

Cary Feldman says it was unpleasant enough to be knocked off his motor scooter at an intersection in Chicago Heights, Ill., by the car behind him. But what added insult to his injuries was the $200 bill that came in the mail a few months later – for the fire truck response.

“It was astounding. I thought I was living in North Korea. I had the audacity to fall on their pavement,” said the 72-year-old retired clinical psychologist, who lives in nearby Matteson, Ill.

Feldman tried unsuccessfully to get Chicago Heights officials to rescind the fee stemming from the June 2010 accident, in which he says the other motorist was deemed at fault and there was never any need for a fire truck to respond along with police and an ambulance. When he couldn’t get the other party’s insurance company to cover the bill, Feldman wound up paying it out of pocket.

“If you’re the victim of somebody else’s negligence, why should you have to pay? It’s crazy to me,” he says.

Citizens and insurance companies cite stories like Feldman’s in their intensifying crusade against so-called “accident response fees,” also known as “crash taxes.” Cash-strapped municipalities and cities across the U.S. started imposing such fees around 2006-07, when the U.S. economy started to falter, to raise money to help fund local police and fire departments.

Some local governments have since done an about-face and voted to rescind the fees, saying it’s given their city a black eye.

The city council in Oceanside, Calif., for example, last year voted to repeal the crash tax it charged to out-of-town drivers who get into car crashes that require emergency help from city paramedics.

"We're talking about a program that hasn't worked, that isn't successful and has hurt us," Councilman Jerry Kern said at the time. "I think for PR (public relations) alone, we should drop this program and tell people we welcome them to this city."

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According to the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, municipalities in as many as 34 states charge accident response fees or are considering ordinances to allow them. Thirteen states prohibit such fees.

Municipalities often contract with a third-party vendor to collect the fees, which vary widely but are typically a few hundred dollars. Some local governments charge for police response to car crashes, some for fire response. Some target the fees only at out-of-town drivers.

The fees are usually billed to a motorist’s insurance company. In some cases, like Feldman’s, a collection agency winds up trying to collect from the individual.

The NAMIC is among the insurance organizations that vigorously oppose such fees. Joe Thesing, assistant vice president-state affairs with NAMIC, says most auto insurance policies don’t cover non-medical accident response and thus won’t pay the fee. The result, he says, is that municipalities wind up collecting only a fraction of what they’re billing for.

“These fees are a form of double taxation applied only to responsible citizens who follow state law and carry auto insurance,” Thesing says. “It’s our belief that responding to investigative accidents is a function of police and fire departments supported by local taxes.”

Thesing contends third-party vendors have been “duping” municipalities into thinking that the insurance industry is the “cash cow” they can use to prop up their ailing budgets.

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One of the largest such vendors is Cost Recovery Corp. of Dayton, Ohio, a collection agency that has contracts with hundreds of municipalities in 16 states. Its president, Regina Moore Jones, disputes Thesing’s contention that “responsible” drivers are being hit with unfair bills.

“We never bill for an ‘accident.’ There has to be some sort of negligence. There’s never a victim that’s ever assessed a fee. Only a negligent party and their insurance provider receive a bill,” Moore Jones told msnbc.com.

She said negligent drivers – not taxpayers – should rightfully foot the bill for police or fire response to car crashes.

“Tax dollars should be used for core services.  Core services do not include subsidizing for negligence,” Moore Jones said. “Is it popular with insurance? Absolutely not.”

Thesing says more local governments are shying away from such fees as they learn more about  the insurance process and as a result of negative publicity.

In the past five or six years, at least 40 municipalities have rescinded or voted down accident response fee ordinances, according to Thesing. That includes New York, the nation’s most populous city, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year dropped plans to charge motorists involved in accidents as much as $495 for emergency-response services. The proposal was shelved following an outcry of opposition from citizens, city council members and others. 

“The Fire Department doesn't charge for its response to structural fires, and the Police Department doesn't charge for patrolling a block," City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said at the time. "Charging for responding to the scene of an accident is a slippery slope, and I don't want to see us begin to go down that road out of a desperate desire to find sources of revenue."

Carol L. Schlitt, a New York personal injury attorney, said the Bloomberg administration's idea was wrongheaded from the start.

“These are basic government functions that the government is supposed to provide to its citizenry,” she told msnbc.com. “The reason we have government is to provide services for the common good. When you impose these types of fees or taxes it is a destruction of the communal bond.”

For Feldman, the $200 bill he wound up paying hurt more than the cuts and bruises he sustained in the scooter accident. He got an insurance settlement for the damaged bike, but never got relief for the first-responder fee.

“This is not acceptable to me. You have to come up with another way (of raising revenue) without exploiting people,” he said.

“I don’t go back to Chicago Heights anymore. I’ve told everybody I know, ‘Stay away, they’re going to find some way to get money from you.’”

Chicago Heights Mayor David Gonzalez did not immediately return a call for comment.

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