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City of Washington adopts crash tax

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WASHINGTON, Beaufort County - Monday night the Washington City Council approved what is commonly referred to as the crash tax or accident recovery fee.

That allows the Washington Fire Department to charge a maintenance fee to the person at fault for the fire department helping out at the scene. Washington Fire Chief Robbie Rose said he and EMS coordinator Doug Bissette came up with the idea since they respond to about 140 automobile crashes within the city limits each year.

They would have a third-party billing service charge the insurance company of the driver at fault in the crash. They are still working out financial details, but fees could start at about $400 dollars and go up depending on how much the fire department does at the crash scene. The hope is to generate an extra $70,000 a year that will go into the general fund.

But not everyone is happy about it.

"I thought they already got paid to show up and do that. I don't know why we would get charged extra," Heather Morlock said.

It's been labeled double dipping, and that type of "crash tax" is illegal in 13 states including Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. But it is legal in North Carolina.

Rose said he likes the idea, because his department's resources go towards those who don't pay taxes in Washington.

"The tax revenue for this department comes soley from the city of Washington tax payers," Rose said. "When we respond to motor vehicle accidents, it could be anyone from outside of the city to out of the state, anyone.

"EMS bills for transport of patients but fire trucks involve several people on that truck responding, and that's a cost of operation over and above the main purpose of that truck tax payers provide. Other agencies are doing it, so we are going to give it a try."

Rose said he doesn't like calling it a crash tax.

"It's not going to be a direct impact like we are creating a tax or levy on the tax payer," Rose said. "If anything it's providing some subsidy for what the tax payer is paying for."

Chief Rose says new fire trucks cost about a half-million dollars and last about 20 years, so they are constantly updating their fleet. The question is will it work.

Twenty-two fire departments in Brunswick County near Wilmington have the "accident recovery fee." But Leland Volunteer Fire Chief John Grimes said they stopped issuing the fees last June because they weren't having any success collecting those fees. He said insurance companies are refusing to pay.

Rose says they hope to have the details worked out and start charging for car crash services at the end of March or beginning of April.

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