Stanislaus Consolidated wants more answers and more public input before deciding whether to bill insurance companies and even the people helped by its firefighters responding to car crashes, medical emergencies and other calls for service.
The fire protection district's board of directors held a workshop Thursday on this proposal that drew about three dozen audience members, with several speaking in opposition.
The board had been scheduled to make a decision on whether to start billing for certain services after the workshop but postponed that decision. Board President Susan Zanker said the district needs to get more answers and do more outreach.
"The board has made no decision on whether it should be done," she said. "... It may or may not be for us." But board member David Woods said he opposes the proposal.
This is the second time the board has postponed making a decision in order to get more public input. The proposal did not appear to have been fully vetted by the district before Thursday's workshop.
Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District is not considering billing for structure fires but for other services, including emergency medical calls, hazmat responses, illegal fires, water rescues and freeing people trapped in cars. The bills could range from $261 for a medical call and $487 to $677 for a "motor vehicle incident" to $784 to $6,608 for a hazmat response.
The board also needs to decide whether it would bill only insurance or if also would bill people without insurance and whether bills would be sent to collections if people don't pay.
A district report says charging for some services could bring in about $332,000 annually.
The district's current operating budget is $14.7 million. But it faces financial challenges, including rising pension costs that are expected to spike in a few years. And a financial forecast shows the district is expected to continue to draw down its reserves to balance its budgets.
Acting Fire Chief Michael Wapnowski said the additional revenue would help the district continue to provide all of its services.
But some audience members said Stanislaus Consolidated needs to live within its means and cut costs. For instance, Riverbank Councilwoman Cindy Fosi said her city reduced expenses and questioned why the fire district was awarding pay increases.
A labor agreement approved by the board of directors in October calls for firefighters to receive 3 percent raises in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Waterford Mayor Mike Van Winkle said many of his residents are upset about the proposal, especially seniors on fixed incomes who might not call 911 if they end up getting a bill. "A lot of people are scared to death," he said.
But an official with Fire Recovery USA — the firm the district could hire to send out the bills and collect payments — said fire agencies have hardship programs that exempt some people from being billed.
He added some fire agencies have been billing for services for more than 30 years. And Modesto is investigating whether to bill insurance when its firefighters respond to emergency medical calls.
Riverbank resident Charlie Neal asked several times why the district had removed liens filed against the former Riverbank Army Ammunition Plant for unpaid fire assessments and how the district made that decision. The Bee reported in 2015 those liens totaled $620,000. Riverbank is turning the plant into a business park.
"Get the (money) and you won't have to overcharge me," Neal said. "My word, I thought I paid property taxes and assessments that covered that."
Zanker told Neal during the regular meeting after the workshop that the board is collecting as much money as it can legally and and is prevented by law from disclosing its closed session discussions regarding the matter.