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Atlanta City Council okays recouping fire response costs

By BRENDA BROWN
Nov. 15, 2012 at 10 p.m.


bbrown@atlantacitizensjournal.com

Certain Cass County residents will no longer enjoy a free ride on Atlanta fire trucks, so to speak, now that the city council has voted to bill for its services if they don't already pay any taxes for them.

"If you live outside of the city limits in an area that is not covered by a fire district, we are going to bill for our fire department response," said City Manager David Cockrell.

Councilmen voted during their regular meeting Nov. 5 to contract with a company called Revenue Rescue to recover some of Atlanta taxpayers' money when the AFD responds to fires on properties located outside the city limits and in emergency service districts.

Revenue Rescue will collect information provided by AFD and bill for its services. The area in question is east and southeast of town, primarily along the Texas Highway 77 corridor to the Louisiana state line, Cockrell said.

The city already bills insurance companies for responding to motor vehicle accidents and hazardous materials spills both in and out of the city. If no insurance company is involved, the vehicle's owner is billed for the city's emergency services.

"There are people in Atlanta who pay property taxes. Queen City is the same. Then there's people in unincorporated areas that have taxed themselves by forming the county's two fire districts," Cockrell explained. "But there are geographical places where people in the county enjoy fire service and they don't pay any taxes. They call and we respond, but they are not paying any tax for that; it's a free service."

Cockrell said the city receives $10,000 annually from the county, but he noted property owners in Atlanta and in Emergency Services Districts 1 and 2 are paying county taxes and their taxes also help to fund the county's contribution for fire services.

"There was a time when $10,000 probably made sense, but we're long past that," Cockrell said. "We're spending as much time out of the city as in the city, so the council began to dialog how we were going to handle this."

The council considered offering "subscriptions" to those who aren't paying anything for fire service, and they considered stopping at the city limits, with the exception of areas that provide mutual aid services to the city.

"We didn't consider either of these as good viable options," the city manager said. "We want to be good neighbors with everyone because these people support Atlanta by shopping and eating here, and we obviously want to continue serving them.

"We discussed the potential out in that area of forming a fire district, but obviously nobody wants to tax themselves if they are getting free services," he added.

When AFD responds to fires in unincorporated areas where property owners pay no taxes to the city or ESDs, the fire department will gather information and Revenue Rescue will contact the homeowners/landowners to request insurance information and work out the details with their insurance companies.

"If there's no insurance, Revenue Rescue will send the bill to the owner," Cockrell said.

The city has set rates for equipment and manpower and will report their work to the billing contractor to assess the costs of their service at each emergency scene.

Cockrell noted the expense to respond to fires "can be extensive, and when you apply these numbers to the amount of runs we have, I believe it's costing the city at least a quarter of a million dollars a year."

He added, if Atlanta didn't have a fire department, it would cost more than $250K a year for the residents of untaxed areas to fund their own fire service, purchase equipment, and provide volunteers and training.

"Atlanta has had to trim its costs substantially due to the loss of the (Anthony Forest Products) sawmill and the downturn in the national economy. We've had to cut three firemen, three police officers and three public works employees," Cockrell said. "But not only have we looked where we're cutting, we've looked at what are we doing, what our mission is and where we are spending our money.

"We're going to the Louisiana line – why are we doing that? Are we getting compensated? We're sending our emergency personnel into harm's way and what are we getting?"

"I don't anticipate recovering all of the cost of the services in these areas, but it's the best decision that we knew how to make," he said. "However, any mutual aid request doesn't apply; if we go to help Fire District 1 or 2, that's not going to be charged; when we need help in Atlanta, they always come."

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