Devonte Jenkins pulled over at a gas station off Roosevelt Road in Broadview one night last year and noticed smoke seeping out the front of his Oldsmobile Bravada.
Jenkins, 20 years old at the time, called 911 for help, and soon after the Broadview Fire Department arrived. Firefighters used a hose and water "for a brief moment to extinguish a very small fire" under the hood of the SUV, according to the agency's incident report.
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The vehicle damage was minimal, and crew members were in and out within 11 minutes, based on the report.
But to the surprise of the Jenkins family, who currently live in Berkeley, the ordeal didn't end there.
A few weeks later they received a bill for the fire department's service: One engine on the scene, at a rate of $250 per hour, and four personnel, each at $35 per hour, for a total of $390.
"We certainly weren't expecting a bill," said Cardine Jenkins, Devonte's mother. "Four hundred dollars for 15 minutes? . . . I don't really understand it."
A Better Government Association review found Broadview's fire department is hardly alone – at least 15 fire departments in Cook County charge the public fees for responding to accidents, and roughly half of them started the practice within the last year. It's part of a growing and, to critics, troubling trend as financially strained government agencies try to supplement tax revenue with more user-based fees.
As the BGA previously reported, most Cook County fire departments already bill patients for ambulance transports (fees are as high as $2,587) but the rates and billing standards vary widely from agency to agency.
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But in addition to ambulance fees, some departments are also starting to charge for work firefighters perform while assisting with auto accidents, which may include putting out a car fire, extricating a trapped passenger, checking for hazardous materials, cleaning up debris, diverting traffic, or, in at least one case, waiting for a tow truck to arrive, according to interviews, and documents obtained by the BGA through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
The departments that have these types of fees include: Alsip, Berkeley, Blue Island, Broadview, Calumet Park, Chicago Heights, Flossmoor, Forest View, Hillside, Maywood, Midlothian, North Palos Fire Protection District, Roberts Park Fire Protection District, Stone Park and Westchester.
The charges, which are typically sent to non-residents only, may be a flat fee or a rate based on the number of responding fire trucks and personnel, as well as the length of time on the scene. For instance, the flat rates range from $150 for extrication in Hillside all the way up to $2,200 for severe accidents in Calumet Park, Chicago Heights and Maywood that require a helicopter. Hourly rates range from $125 to $400 an hour per vehicle and $35 to $75 an hour per firefighter.
If a car crash involves multiple people, all of the parties involved could get a bill regardless of who was at fault.
"People think, 'my taxes pay for that,' but probably 90 percent of my accident calls are not residents" so they are not paying into the village coffers that support the fire department, said Hillside Fire Chief Michael Kuryla.
"Some people call it gouging," he added. "But the costs to send the fire engines out and all that we do is not covered in our budget."
Ever since the economic downturn, property tax revenue has remained stagnant yet operating costs have skyrocketed, said Jeff Ketchen, fire chief at the Roberts Park Fire Protection District, which is based in Justice.
"The cost of doing this job is increasing a lot but the amount we are receiving to do it has not, so we're kind of stuck up against a wall here," he said. "We certainly don't want to impose a financial hardship on anyone and we do what we can to help people."
As a result, municipalities and fire protection districts have started to think creatively about finding alternative revenue sources. In this case, the idea is to get money out of the car insurance companies, which typically provide coverage for the costs associated with auto accidents, according to public officials.
"It was a dark secret that a lot of [fire departments] didn't know about, and now more [fire departments] found out about it so they are trying to collect on it," said Tom Styczynski, fire chief in Alsip.
As for the general public, most people do not end up paying out of pocket because "you already have that built in to your insurance coverage," he said.
The insurance industry, however, has largely opposed the practice, calling it a "crash tax" that raises "troubling questions."
"We have seen around the country increasingly as municipalities are strapped for cash they look for ways – and the billing services teach them how to do this – to get reimbursement," said Bob Passmore, senior director at Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a Chicago-based trade group that represents insurance companies. "There are some towns that start down this path, and then they find out that the insurance companies aren't paying because it's not covered in many cases."
Michael Barry, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, a New York-based consumer education group funded by the insurance industry, said insurance companies could potentially hike rates if the fees get popular.
"These fees are not factored into the underwriting of the policies and if you are going to impose these fees, it's going to increase the cost of car and property insurance," Barry said.
Some departments said the amount of revenue being generated through the accident response fees is minimal – in Broadview, for instance, the village billed out $28,000 since 2011 and has collected $22,000, records show. But for many departments it's too soon to tell how lucrative this is because they only recently started billing for these kinds of services. There also can be a lag in accounting because unpaid bills are sometimes sent to collections agencies.
The departments that added a "crash tax" within the past year or so are: Alsip, Berkeley, Blue Island, Calumet Park, Midlothian and Roberts Park.
Although the BGA did not find departments purposely sending out fire crews when they weren't needed, the potential for abuse is there because of the arbitrary nature in which they're dispatched, and the financial motives, according to the insurance industry.
"Some of them are charging by the number of people that show up. You almost have an incentive to send as many vehicles as possible. But what happens if you send this to a fender bender?" Passmore said. "There are a lot of troubling questions that this raises."
The largest fire department in the region, Chicago's, does not levy these types of fees.
As for the Jenkins family, it's unclear whether or not they had insurance at the time of the Broadview incident. Either way, the bill, still unpaid, is now with a collections agency and accruing interest, the family said.
What's more, the invoice ended up in the name of Devonte's brother, Daryl Jenkins Jr., 23, who co-owns the SUV. As a result, the unpaid bill could hurt Daryl's credit rating, even though he wasn't there during the night of the accident.
"He works hard," Cardine Jenkins said. "He's a truck driver. He's out there doing great things for his age. For this to be on his record really is not fair."
Broadview Fire Chief Thomas Gaertner said he understands the family's concerns and that people can always try to appeal in cases of hardship. However, he also said he can't bill by the minute or by the size of the fire.
"We are not in the business to gouge people," he added. "We are just trying to provide a service, and it's an expensive service. There are thousands of people who drive through this city every day and we have to provide a service to them whether they pay taxes or not."
This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Katie Drews, who can be reached at (312) 821-9027 or firstname.lastname@example.org.