Proposal to bill non-residents for emergency services

DOWNEY - A request by Councilman Mario Guerra to begin billing non-residents for traffic collision-related emergency response services that occur within the city, regardless of fault, failed to pass at Tuesday's City Council meeting.The ordinance failed, 3-2, with Mayor Luis Marquez, Mayor Pro Tem Roger Brossmer and Councilman David Gafin voting against the proposal. A growing number of municipalities, particularly in Orange County, have begun seeking reimbursement from non-residents who require emergency assistance from the police and fire departments. In making an argument to bill out-of-towners, city manager Gerald Caton said Downey is one of a few "full-service" cities with its own police and fire departments, and it does not come cheap. The police and fire departments take up a combined 71% of Downey's overall budget, he said. The motorist's insurer typically pays the reimbursement cost, but if the insurer fails to pay, the non-resident is responsible for the fee, Downey officials said. A preliminary report by Caton did not say how much revenue the ordinance would have generated, but Guerra said a flat $250 fee could have brought up to $1 million into city coffers annually. The city spends $3 million each year providing emergency services to non-residents, he said. Other council members, however, openly questioned if such fees could hurt motorists who travel to Downey to shop or work. "There's something deep down that tells me this is not right," said Gafin, adding that Stonewood Center and Coca-Cola employ many people who commute to Downey. "An accident is an accident...I don't like surcharges on non-residents." "If we're trying to be a business-friendly city, this is sending a conflicting message, and I have a problem with that," said Councilman Fernando Vasquez. Mayor Luis Marquez agreed. "Something just doesn't feel right," he said. "It's just wrong on many levels...It sends a bad message, I think." When asked by Mayor Pro Tem Roger Brossmer, Police Chief Rick Esteves registered his opposition to the bill. Fire Chief Lonnie Croom supported it. The Downey Police Department currently charges for responses to DUI collisions. It also collects a fee for traffic collision investigation reports. The Downey Fire Department also charges for responses to DUI collisions, in addition to non-resident paramedic services and life support transportation. State Sen. Tony Strickland sponsored legislation earlier this year that would have prohibited cities from charging a fee to any person, regardless of residency, for emergency services, but the bill failed in the Senate Public Safety Committee on May 3.

********** Published: May 26, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 6