Some drivers who wreck their cars in San Marcos could soon get billed for the cost of sending firetrucks to the scene of the crash — one of several charges for emergency service that city officials say could help them recoup up to $100,000 a year.
City officials are also considering charges for swift water rescues and even responding to house fires. Such fees are becoming more common and have already been adopted in several Central Texas communities, where officials say the charges will help avoid tax increases for residents. The cities of Georgetown and Cedar Park are already billing for fire service; Buda bills for responses to vehicle collisions, and Round Rock bills for hazardous materials calls.
“More and more departments are discovering that it doesn’t hurt them to go out and bill,” said Chris Barron, the director of the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas.
The practice has increased since the recession because of the limited taxing authority in many municipalities, Barron said.
“The downturn hit, and departments were struggling to make ends meet and keep services up,” Barron said.
It costs $230 to $450 for the Fire Department to respond to a vehicle collision, the most common type of call in San Marcos, said Assistant City Manager Steve Parker.
With Interstate 35 running through the city, many of the people who have to be rescued don’t live in San Marcos and don’t pay taxes there.
Parker said the city will attempt to bill insurance companies first. Many auto and homeowner insurance policies have clauses to cover rescue expenses, he said.
“A lot of cities are moving toward some type of revenue recovery,” he said. “The idea is that people should have the ability to pay for the services they use.”
Residents of San Marcos won’t be billed directly, Parker said. Only out-of-town people without insurance or with a policy that doesn’t cover rescues would get a bill in the mail. For house or commercial fires, the insurance company would get the bill.
“In the majority of all homeowners policies, there is an automatic claim of about $500 to fire departments that does not meet a deductible requirement,” Parker said.
The city would be leaving money on the table if it did not put a billing ordinance on the books, he said. If a San Marcos homeowner had a policy that didn’t cover rescue, the city would not issue a bill, he said.
If a rescue occurred while a crime was being committed, such as an accident caused by a drunken driver, the city would bill the person responsible directly, Parker said.
Parker dismissed concerns that the billing ordinance might make people in trouble reluctant to call for help.
“I think they are still going to call,” he said.
Patients in San Marcos are already billed for ambulance service, which is provided by Hays County EMS, a private company.
The San Marcos Fire Department spent more than $284,000 in 2012 on vehicle collisions alone, city records show. The department has a budget of $6.5 million and employs about 60 firefighters.
Parker said that the ordinance is expected to go before the City Council in the next two months and that the city could begin billing within six months.
“We’re not trying to go out and do this to bill our citizens,” Parker said. “We just want to recapture some of our expenses and avoid having to increase taxes.”