The North Bend Eagle

 

Fire victims asked to help pick up the tab
Relaively new NBVFD policy catching some citizens by surprise

by Nathan Arneal
Published 1/27/16

Last June Marge Lodl was surprised by a phone call telling her there was a fire in the dumpster behind her family’s Main Street North Bend business, Lodl’s Contruction and Cabinetry.

A few weeks later, she got another surprise in the mail. A bill from the North Bend Fire Protection District for $1,570.

“I got it and I said, Jiminy Christmas, I didn’t know the fire department billed for this,” Lodl said.

NBVFDFollowing a trend that is becoming more popular as fire departments seek new streams of revenue, the North Bend Volunteer Fire Department began billing people for fire calls about a year and a half ago.

“Most of the departments around do that anymore,” NBVFD assistant chief Don Kruger said. “When you have to pay half a million dollars just for a (fire) engine, money’s tight, and we’re under such tight revenue constraints.”

Kruger wears two hats when it comes to the local department. In addition to being the assistant fire chief, he also sits on the rural fire board as secretary/treasurer.

Fire calls are billed according to a standard national rates. Most fire trucks are billed at $500 per hour. Fire department personnel costs $20 per man hour, though the firefighters themselves don’t receive that money.

“This goes to the fire district,” Kruger said. “We are volunteers. We don’t get paid for this kind of stuff.”

The billing agency contracted by the fire department, LifeQuest Services, sends bills to the victim’s insurance company. Kruger said only if the insurance company doesn’t pay will the individual be billed directly.

The additional revenue from the billing, Kruger said, is necessary to keep the fire department up to date with the latest equipment and technology.

“The equipment is unbelievable,” he said. “It’s so expensive you just can’t comprehend it anymore. You’ve got to do everything you can to get that kind of equipment so you can run advanced life support, and that’s the same (reasoning) that goes into billing for our fire equipment.”

Kruger gave the example of a recent purchase of a gurney for the emergency squad that cost $40,000. He said a regular gurney could be had for $6,000, but this one has an electric motor that does the lifting, which came in handy on a recent call where a 485-pound person had to be lifted.

“With this new cot there is no lifting at all,” Kruger said. “It’s all done with electric power that lifts 600 pounds. You got to do that to save our backs. The problem is Americans aren’t getting any smaller.”

The NBVFD also recently ordered a new rescue squad and a pumper truck, and the bill came to about $850,000.

North Bend Rural Fire District Board president Duane Ellermeier said purchases like that wouldn’t be possible depending on tax revenue alone.

“In a public entity, you can really only tax for one year,” Ellermeier said. “Everything else has to be put in a bond if it’s for more than one year. So equipment goes that route. Those bonds are actually paid for through cash flow, hence the billing. We’re not going to get enough money with the (tax levy) lid and everything to buy new equipment.”

Ellermeier said years of financial mismanagement, including embezzlement, also played a role in the decision to adopt a billing policy.

“When I came on it was a god-awful mess,” he said. “A big part of that problem was billings. This is where people got their hands in the cookie jar and things got screwed up. We have been working trying to get a good billing company since I’ve been on the board.”

The board believes it found the right company about a year and a half ago, and it began billing for fire calls.

Not everyone agrees with the tactic.

Dean Lux Jr., who formerly served on the NBVFD for 20 years, had a small electrical fire in October at a rental house he owns in North Bend. He said the fire department was there, but he pulled the electric meter himself, which cut power to the house and essentially killed the fire. There was some smoke damage, but no structural damage to the house.

The firefighters asked for his insurance information.

“I thought it was just normal paperwork,” Lux said. “Then I get a bill in the mail for $2,060 for the truck and men and equipment. I told the insurance company that I don’t feel we need to pay that. Taxpayers already pay that tab.”

His insurance company said it wouldn’t cover the fire department’s bill. He provided the Eagle with a letter from his insurance company, which in part read, “This coverage does not apply if the property is located... within a fire protection district, because that protection is paid by tax dollars.”

“When you’re starting to send people to a collections agent for a tax-funded organization, that’s wrong,” Lux said. “I just think it’s wrong. If I was on the department, I’d say it’s wrong.”

North Bend is not alone in its billing practices among area fire departments. However, the practice is not universal.

Fremont Rural and the Fremont fire departments have both been billing for fire calls for a few years now.

The fire departments in Morse Bluff, Snyder and Scribner do not bill for fire calls.
Morse Bluff Fire Chief Eric Chvatal said it is something his department has discussed but decided against.

“That’s one of the things we’ve talked about,” Chvatal said. “The taxpayers are already paying for it. Why charge them for something they’re already getting charged for?”

Chief Lonny Niewohner of the Scribner Fire Department also said he is against the idea of billing for fire calls.

“We’ve talked about it,” Niewohner said, “but we feel that since we’re collecting taxes from everybody, if we were to charge and collect taxes, we personally feel that it’s a double dip. We won’t do that. It would be nice to help alleviate some bills, but it’s too uncomfortable for us.”

Niewhoner also worried that charging for fire calls could prevent people from calling the fire department in an effort to save money.

“What’s going to happen if you start charging,” he said, “is that people aren’t going to call you until it’s too late.”

Lodl, who is being billed $1,570 for a dumpster fire, said that’s not an unreasonable concern.

“Would I call again? Probably,” she said. “In a state of panic, I probably would if I would if I were here by myself. But maybe I’d look at it and think, ‘Eh, I can handle this myself.’”

Fremont Rural Chief Wade McPherson said his department has been billing for three or four years. He said his board takes the view that the billing actually saves the taxpayers money. If people who use the services are billed, then the overall tax request won’t be as high.

“We don’t collect a lot from the billing, but it helps,” McPherson said. “We’re trying to capitalize on income from the insurance companies. We’re not trying to break the public, but we’re actually trying to save the taxpayers some money by doing it that way. It helps subsidise our budget every year.”

The Fremont Fire Department began billing for fire calls in 2013. Chief Todd Bernt, who like McPherson and Chvatal is an NBC graduate, said the goal of the system is to collect from insurance agencies.

“If we have a structure fire and we have whatever amount of bill,” Bernt said, “and they don’t have (it covered by insurance), then we don’t collect. The bill is dropped right there. The individual is not going to pay that bill. Only the insurance company. If it’s written into the policy, then we’ll collect. If not, the bill is dropped right there.”

Technically, fire districts in Nebraska do not have their own tax authority. Departments turn in a funding request to the county and the county determines the amount of tax that will be levied.

North Bend’s mill levy of 4.6 cents is near them middle of the pack for Dodge County, ranking fourth highest of the nine fire protection districts. County levies range from Hooper’s 7.1 cent levy down to Nickerson’s 2.6. This does not include Fremont Fire, whose funds come from the Fremont City Council, not the county.

Morse Bluff’s levy is 4.0 cents per $1,000 of property valuation.

Counties are not required to provide fire departments any money.

“We’re fortunate that Dodge County will fund us,” Kruger said. “Out in the western part of the state there are some counties that will not fund fire departments, so they have to go to a vote of the people every year just to get money to operate. We’re lucky we’ve had a couple of fire fighters on the Dodge County Board of Supervisors, and they’ve been in our corner.”

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