Municipalities Say "User Fees" Necessary to Maintain Services

Is it "double taxation" or necessary to maintain services?

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    Cary Feldman calls it "extortion" that he has to pay a fee for help he never requested or ultimately needed.

    Cary Feldman calls it "extortion" that he has to pay a fee for help he never requested or ultimately needed. 

    Feldman was on his scooter and stopped at a red light at Western Avenue and Lincoln Highway in Chicago Heights in June 2009 when he was hit by a car.  Someone called for help, and emergency crews, including a rescue team on a Chicago Heights Fire Department truck, responded.  Feldman's injuries were minor, so he chose against going to the hospital.

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    A few months later, Feldman said he got an invoice in the mail from the fire department, requesting a payment of $200 for the fire truck. 

    "They did nothing.  They didn't stop to aid in any way.  There was no reason for their appearance," he said.

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    That "accident tax," or "user fee" as most fire departments call them, can range in cost depending on the municipality.  The City of Chicago doesn't have the fee, but according to a survey by the Illinois Fire Service Organizations, at least 109 other areas in Illinois do assess a charge if they respond to an accident.

    In Hillside, non-residents will pay $350.  In Westchester it's $250. In Flossmoor it $125. Berwyn is one of many cities across the country contemplating whether to implement similar fees.

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    [Download: Survey of Fire Department User Fees (.pdf)]

    "It's a poor way of addressing the situation, which is the funding issue," said Bob Passmore with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.   The organization represents more than 1,000 insurance companies fighting against the emergency services fee.

    "People perceive this for what it is. It's double taxation. They believe they've already paid for these services, with whatever taxes they pay," said Passmore.

    State Law requires emergency service teams to respond to calls for ambulance in motor vehicle accidents, as they did in Cary Feldman's case.

    Chicago Heights Fire Chief Tom Martello admits the charges are due to shrinking budgets, but said that right now it's the only way to continue operating.

    "The fairest and most equitable means to support emergency services required in this day and age is the utilization of user fees," he said.

    Feldman ultimately paid the $200, even writing "pain in protest on his check.  Budget constraints or not, he believes the accident tax, especially in his case, is unfair.

    "It wasn't needed. They did nothing. That's why I feel it's a form of extortion," he said.