The Board of Supervisors today authorized the county's Office of Emergency Services to draw up proposed fees that could be assessed on residents and businesses for acts of negligence that needlessly divert fire department resources.
"It's very clear out citizens deserve a basic level of public safety,'' said Supervisor Jeff Stone. "We're not looking for a special tax. We're looking at negligent acts where there have been definitive breaches of the law.''
The OES studied how surrounding counties handle charges for accidental fires, drunken driving collisions, repetitive false fire alarms and other incidents for which Riverside County could seek cost recovery.
In January, the board asked for a comparative review of fee structures while considering how to remedy a roughly $4 million deficit in the county fire department's 2010-11 fiscal year budget.
The OES concluded that practices in San Bernardino and Ventura counties
could be adopted by Riverside County to recoup expenses connected to negligent acts.
County officials cited the example of a third false fire alarm at a business, for which San Bernardino County imposes a $100 fee, while Ventura County charges for the actual cost of equipment, gas and staff needed to respond.
"We send two engines when an alarm is sounding,'' Riverside County fire
Chief John Hawkins told the board today. "But that takes two engines off-
line, and there's a substantial cost.''
In the case of a drunken driving-related collision, both San Bernardino and Ventura counties charge the responsible party for the cost. If the person has auto insurance, the insurer is billed.
An accidental fire response in San Bernardino County can result in equipment costs, a $201-per-hour fee for personnel and a 16.5 percent
Riverside County fire does not presently assess fees for any of the above. According to Hawkins, the fire department does charge for a hazardous materials clean-up and seeks reimbursement for firefighting expenses arising from wildfires ignited by people who violated the fire code in the process.
The OES study pointed to the potential benefits of a new annual fee for
paramedic services that residents in unincorporated communities could choose to pay as insurance coverage for emergency services.
Officials referred to Norco's yearly $49.50 charge included on residents' utility bills as an example. Those who opt not to pay it are billed for the actual cost of paramedic services -- provided their insurance doesn't cover the tab.
According to the study, the county would also benefit by assessing an administrative fee to support billing and collection efforts. San Bernardino
County's fee is 16.5 percent, while Ventura's is 17 percent.
Hawkins said the county fire department has a 64 percent recovery rate
on billable expenses. He estimated that rate could go up to 75 percent with the proposed changes in place.
A new fee structure would require revising current ordinances or drafting a new one, county officials said. Public hearings would be necessary before any board vote.
Hawkins said in addition to the unincorporated communities, new fees would likely apply to the cities served by Riverside County fire.
The OES is slated to report back with the proposed fee schedules by June
1. --City News Service