The Salida Fire Protection District intends to bill the insurance of the people it helps, including when its firefighters respond to car crashes and house fires, though it will not bill for emergency medical calls.
This comes as the Modesto Fire Department and the Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District look to bill for some services as many fire agencies feel pinched by expenses — including pension costs — growing faster than revenues.
The Salida district's board this month voted 5-0 in support of a resolution that lets the district charge for some services. The board also voted 5-0 to hire Fire Recovery USA to send out the bills and collect the payments. Fire Recovery will keep 20 percent of what it collects.
The costs could range from $487 for a car crash and $1,461 if firefighters have to free someone trapped in a car to $448 per hour for a fire engine responding to a fire.
The resolution said in some cases bills will be sent directly to people who receive services. But interim Fire Chief Vern Losh said the board's direction to him is to bill insurance.
"Our intent is not to send grandma to collections," he said. "This is about billing insurance carriers. That's our intent. It's not to go after someone who does not have the financial means to pay a bill."
Losh said the next step is for staff to develop a billing policy and bring that to the board for approval. The policy will spell out what to do if someone does not have insurance or if insurance won't pay. The policy could come to the board by as soon as late June.
State law prevents insurance companies from raising policy holders' rates if insurance companies get a bill, according to a Fire Recovery USA official. The official said insurers are collecting premiums for services provided by fire agencies. But he acknowledged the law could change in the future.
A spokesman with the Property Casualty Insurance Association of America's western regional office in California did not respond to a Thursday request for comment.
Salida plans on billing for services because it's financially strapped. Losh said the district is using $164,000 in reserves to balance its current budget and will use reserves to balance its upcoming budget. He said billing for some services could bring in $36,000 to $40,000 annually.
District voters two years ago narrowly rejected a ballot measure that would have increased the annual fire suppression assessment from $45 to $156 per home. The district staffs one of its three fire stations and has eight paid employees, which it supplements with volunteer firefighters.
Stanislaus Consolidated's board held public hearings in April and May about billing for some services. The May hearing drew more than two dozen audience members and several spoke in opposition.
They said they already pay taxes for fire services, Consolidated should learn to live within its means, and seniors on limited incomes might not call 911 if it meant they would get a bill.
Consolidated's board has not decided whether to bill for services and whether it would just bill insurance. It also is considering using Fire Recovery USA. Consolidated estimates billing for some services could bring in $332,000 annually. It also is using reserves to balance its budget.
The Modesto Fire Department is researching billing insurance companies for emergency medical calls. The department estimates that could bring in $1 million annually. This proposal is in the early stages, and the City Council would have to approve it.
Turlock and Ceres fire are not considering billing for fire services, though Turlock has been billing DUI drivers for several years when they crash their cars.