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Cities, states turn to fees to fill budget gaps

With budgets under strain, municipalities are imposing or raising a host of fees to raise revenue; some charge for things like responding to auto accidents.
/ Source: The New York Times

After her sport utility vehicle sideswiped a van in early February, Shirley Kimel was amazed at how quickly a handful of police officers and firefighters in Winter Haven, Fla., showed up. But a real shock came a week later, when a letter arrived from the city billing her $316 for the cost of responding to the accident.

“I remember thinking, ‘What the heck is this?’ ” says Ms. Kimel, 67, an office manager at a furniture store. “I always thought this sort of thing was covered by my taxes.”

It used to be. But last July, Winter Haven became one of a few dozen cities in the country to start charging “accident response fees.” The idea is to shift the expense of tending to and cleaning up crashes directly to at-fault drivers. Either they, or their insurers, are expected to pay.

Such cash-per-crash ordinances tend to infuriate motorists, and they often generate bad press, but a lot of cities are finding them hard to resist. With the economy flailing and budgets strained, state and local governments are being creative about ways to raise money. And the go-to idea is to invent a fee — or simply raise one.

Ohio’s governor has proposed a budget with more than 150 new or increased fees, including a fivefold increase in the cost to renew a livestock license, as well as larger sums to register a car, order a birth certificate or dump trash in a landfill. Other fees take aim at landlords, cigarette sellers and hospitals, to name a few.

Wisconsin’s governor, James E. Doyle, has proposed a charge on slaughterhouses that would be levied on the basis of each animal slaughtered. He also wants to more than triple the application charge for an elk-hunting license to $10, an idea that has raised eyebrows because the elk population in the state is currently too small to allow an actual hunting season.

Washington’s mayor, Adrian M. Fenty, has proposed a “streetlight user fee” of $4.25 a month, to be added to electric bills, that would cover the cost of operating and maintaining the city’s streetlights. New York City recently expanded its anti-idling law to include anyone parked near a school who leaves the engine running for more than a minute. Doing that will cost you $100.

“The most dangerous places on Staten Island are the schools at drop-off and dismissal time, when parents are parked three deep in the road,” says James S. Oddo, a City Council member from Staten Island who voted for the measure. “There is a mentality here that Johnny can’t walk 100 feet, he has to be dropped off right at the front of the school — and frankly that’s why Johnny is as pudgy as he is.”

Nothing, it seems, is off the table. In Pima County, Ariz., the County Board of Supervisors increased an assortment of fees, including the cost of AIDS testing. Florida has proposed raising medical visit co-payments for inmates in state prisons. Parking fees at the Honolulu Zoo could rise by 500 percent if a proposal there goes through.

Politicians tend to regard fees as more palatable than taxes, and more focused too. If a state needs to finance an infrastructure to oversee fishing, why shouldn’t fishermen foot the bill? But groups like the nonpartisan Tax Foundation in Washington worry that governments are now using fees to shore up budget shortfalls rather than cover specific costs incurred by specific users.

“When it comes to paying for bananas, you’ve got the market as a mechanism to make sure you’re paying a fair price,” says Josh Barro, a staff economist at the Tax Foundation. “But when it comes to getting your driver’s license renewed, the government has a monopoly, and you have no idea what it costs the state or what it’s doing with the money.”

Get-tough approach
In some cases, towns say they are merely enforcing rules that have long been on the books. For the first time in years, for instance, officials at Londonderry, N.H., have mailed notices to dog owners reminding them to renew their annual dog licenses, which cost $6.50 apiece, or face a $25 fine. Town leaders think the get-tough approach could raise an additional $20,000, but Meg Seymour, the town clerk, is dreading local reaction. When the town last sent out fine notices, in 2002, the calls to her office were vicious.

“Let’s just say that we’re the ones who take the venting,” she said. “You have no idea.”

If past patterns hold, the new wave of fees is just getting started. Gary Wagner, a professor of economics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, was one author of a study of moving-vehicle and parking tickets in North Carolina, covering a 14-year period. He found a strong correlation between a dip in government revenue and a rise in ticket-writing by the police.

“But there’s a lag time,” Mr. Wagner said. “Typically, it’s about a year after the revenues drop that the police start writing more tickets.”

If you date the start of the downturn to last September, the ticket-writing is just getting under way. And New Yorkers can expect more days like the one in mid-March, when the police wrote 9,016 driving-while-phoning tickets within 24 hours, roughly 20 times the usual number.

The “accident response fee” idea could spread, too. A company in Dayton, Ohio, called the Cost Recovery Corporation specializes in setting up collection systems for municipalities that bill for police and fire responses. (The company keeps 10 percent of billings.) Inquiries have tripled in the last year, says the company’s president, Regina Moore.

“What we’re hearing from towns is, ‘The taxpayers are all over us; they don’t want to surrender more tax money,’ ” she said. “And response fees are basically a form of restitution, like paying for a stay in jail.”

Insurance companies loathe the idea, because inevitably customers assume that a crash fee is covered by their policies. (It isn’t, in most cases.) And unlike the pay-to-stay approach to jails, crash fees rarely play well in the media. The mayor of Duluth, Minn., backed off a crash fee proposal shortly after Jay Leno joked about the city, by name, in a “Tonight Show” monologue last year.

In Winter Haven, the accident response fee seemed to leaders to be a reasonable way to help finance the police and fire departments, but so far only 20 percent of the $32,000 that has been billed to at-fault drivers has been collected.

“We chose not to contract out the collection part of this, and frankly, because of staff cuts, we don’t have enough people to handle all the paperwork,” says Joy Townsend, the city’s communications officer. “We’re now evaluating how cost-effective this program is.”

Ms. Kimel, the S.U.V. driver in Florida, will not make the numbers look any better. She has no idea whether the city will come after her for that $316 bill, but she doesn’t care.

“I’m not paying,” she said, “because it isn’t fair.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.