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Cost recovery debate: Who should pay?

October 17, 2012 - Atlas Twp.-Earlier this summer four area youth were caught by sheriff's deputies on the roof of a local school building. Township officials said the fire department was called to the scene and a ladder was used to assist the youths off the roof.

While the act was mischievous and no damages to school property were reported, the cost to township taxpayers has sparked debate among local officials. From costs for the local fire department to law enforcement to administration, such actions, while somewhat minor, can add up when township taxrolls have dipped due to a loss of property values.

On Monday night the township board of trustees grappled with the cost-recovery policy established several years ago. Township officials updated the cost-recovery ordinance in 2010 and established charges for emergency services and method for collection. The township charges for police or fire emergencies, first responder services, hazardous-materials response, and police or fire standby in some instances.

Shirley Kautman-Jones, township supervisor, said they are not trying to gouge anyone.

"People think when an event happens that they are not liable for those charges," said Jones. "Taxpayers are on the hook for costs for the fire department and the sheriff's deputies. In the case of the kids on the roof—that tied up a firefighter and sheriff's deputy. They should pay for that. Consider, too, that if a drunk driver is picked up that could tie up a deputy for four hours— that's if they are happy to go to jail. The contract cost for deputies is $65 per hour. If you get an OUIL you should pay."

The same holds true for the fire department.

"Most insurance companies have a fee on homeowner policies for cost recovery," she said. "So if there's a house fire the township can be reimbursed for those costs. How about false fire alarms? That takes time and energy, too, on the taxpayers dime."

According to the terms of the ordinance, costs for services resulting from negligent acts of recipients may be authorized by the township supervisor and shall be calculated by a rate schedule. No costs for services shall be collected where no negligence can be attributed to the recipient.

In 2010 the board added a definitive cost recovery (per hour) schedule which includes reimbursement for firefighter officer, $25; firefighters, $21; and sheriff deputies, $57. The fire department will also charge per hour for a pumper/tanker truck, $400; squad/rescue, $250; and grass/utility truck, $200. The township fire department had collected on arson, downed power lines or burning without a permit. Their collections are about $1,500 per year. In addition, the township collects from ticket fees, towing, fines and forfeitures, and OUILs.

Those collections have averaged less than $1,500 per year, say township officials.

Other township officials do not agree with Jones.

"They are charging local residents part of what the one mill for the fire department should do," said Paul Amman, trustee. "They could go for the cost recovery, even for a heart attack. I think they are abusing and misusing the cost recovery. If they continue to use the cost recovery that way the township will lose that 1 mill."

"From a creosote fire in a chimney to a grease fire in the kitchen, house fires are almost always the result of some kind of negligence. That's what a fire department is used for—it's normal operations. Maybe if the fire was done on purpose, then yes a bill would be in order."

The issue will be discussed at the Nov. 19 township meeting.

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