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City puts brakes on 'accident tax' Jon Campbell | Fri, May 14 2010 10:26 AM

The Chula Vista City Council on Tuesday decided at the last minute to postpone discussion of a cost recovery plan proposed by the city's fire department.

The proposal would have required drivers who cause major accidents - those requiring the cleanup of hazardous materials, evacuations and other emergency service responses - to reimburse the city for its costs.

The item had been listed on the agenda for discussion but was pulled minutes before the meeting began with no explanation.

The proposal on Tuesday would have hired a private firm, Fire Recovery USA, to collect funds on behalf of the city.

According to a staff report, payments would range from $435 up to more than $2,000.

The report describes the $435 charge as "the most common billing level" because the actions described - things like traffic control and patient contact - occur "almost every time the Fire Department responds to an accident," according to the report.

City Manager Jim Sandoval said the item was pulled in response to citizen complaints. He said he thought some of the consternation might have been due to a misunderstanding; the proposal would not be used to charge accident victims for minor responses, he said.

Sandoval said the fees would help to offset only major responses involving hazardous material cleanups, and would only target those who are found to be negligent.

"When you have a really major accident and you have fluids all over the street, we would bill the at-fault driver. And that would only occur if someone was actually found to be at fault," said Sandoval. He said staff would do more community outreach but he expected to bring the item back to the council again in the future.

The California Health and Safety Code already allows cities to bill negligent individuals who require major public safety responses, as well as drivers who damage roadways and other highway infrastructure either "willfully" or "negligently."

Fees assessed are payable by the at-fault driver's insurance coverage, but the city currently doesn't pursue such reimbursement.

The staff report seemed to suggest that drivers could be charged for less serious accidents as well as major ones, citing motor vehicle statutes that allow recovery of costs associated with damaged light posts and other roadway structures. The charges can only be incurred if the damage was caused "willfully" or "negligently," according to the motor vehicle statute.

Councilman Steve Castaneda said he would look at the proposal with an open mind and wanted to learn more about the details. Councilwoman Pamela Bensoussan said that she hadn't had time to look closely at the measure and was withholding judgment. Mayor Cheryl Cox could not be reached for comment. Both Councilmen Rudy Ramirez and Mitch Thompson said they supported the proposal in principle, as a way to maintain high levels of service during times of deep budget cutbacks.

"I think the city does not have the luxury any longer, if it ever did, of not charging reasonable fees for the services it provides," said Thompson.

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