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City fees struck down

OCEANSIDE — Requests by Councilmen Gary Felien and Jerry Kern to repeal fees to recover costs for visitors’ emergency services and fire inspections of multi-unit dwellings were approved by City Council in a 3-2 vote on March 16. Mayor Jim Wood and Councilwoman Esther Sanchez voted no.
Council’s decision to repeal the two cost recovery fees leaves the Fire Department short on funds to continue providing those services.
Felien and Kern both said their motivation to repeal the fees was to limit taxation.
Some citizens accused Felien and Kern of having a negative agenda against the unionized Fire Department that has backed rival council candidates.
“I see more and more of these items coming up trying to repeal something,” Wood said. “We should be nonpartisan. I hear the word retribution. I hope that’s not the case.”
The recovery fees have been active for a year or less.
The emergency services recovery fees went into effect in April 2010.
The ordinance previously allowed the city to collect payments from insured visitors who were at fault for vehicle accidents, structure fires, hazardous waste spills and other incidents that warranted emergency responses.
The approximate cost for the Fire Department to respond to motor vehicle accidents can range between $435 and $2,200 or more.
A HAZMAT response can start at a cost of $700 and increase to $5,900 or more.
Accidents involving gas, water or sewer lines can range in response cost from about $400 to $1,000 or more.
Fire responses run from $400 to $500 an hour.
Since the fees were enacted in April 2010 about $15,000 in recovery fees have been collected. Initial projections anticipated $266,000 could be recovered annually.
Felien said the small amount of money collected through emergency services recovery fees or “crash tax” might be hurting tourism.
“It’s like spitting into the ocean and trying to raise the sea level,” Felien said. “Our goal is to attract more people into the city. We don’t want policies that are going to scare visitors away.”
There is no record from the Chamber of Commerce or the California Visitors Center that the fees have had any negative impact on tourism. About 30 cities in California charge nonresidents emergency services recovery fees.
There were some objections from residents who said that dropping the fees would put the burden of visitors’ emergency services costs on local taxpayers.
“This is a revenue recovery method,” Nadine Scott, Oceanside resident, said. “Lets get rid of it because we haven’t made enough money? That is insane.”
“This is a recovery from the insurance companies for something they owe us,” Chuck Lowery, Oceanside resident and former councilman, said. “This revenue is income for us. It makes no sense to do away with any sort of income for us.”
There were also residents’ objections to repealing fees for fire inspection of multi-unit dwellings and putting the burden of inspection costs of income-generating property on taxpayers.
Fire inspection fees for multi-unit dwellings range from $119 for a three- to 10-unit dwelling to $238 for a 31- to 50-unit dwelling and more for dwellings with 51 plus units.
“I don’t think it’s fair to homeowners to have to subsidize somebody else,” Sanchez said. “If we want to subsidize this activity out of the general fund we are going to delete a program, delete a police officer.”
The ordinance has only been in effect for one month. It was adopted in December 2010 and activated in February 2011 after a one-month notification.
Kern said his push to repeal the fee was based on the principle that property taxes are already charged to homeowners. “We’re trying to charge them a fee for something they pay their taxes on,” Kern said. “I think people pay enough taxes.”