Erlanger, Kentucky Police Chief Marc Fields is torn.
He’s concerned his city’s recent decision to start collecting payment from out-of-town drivers at fault in traffic accidents will hurt his city’s image. On the other hand, he’s seen the numbers.
Of the 343 vehicle crashes in the city during November and December, 82 percent did not involve an Erlanger resident, according to an Associated Press analysis. Only 48 of the vehicles were carrying someone from the city.
“I was not a proponent; I was an opponent of this [policy],” Fields said. “I did not want to start doing this, but when I looked at the sheer cost, I couldn’t logically say ‘no’ to the council. I couldn’t make a legitimate argument against it.”
Geographically, the city of 17,000 in northern Kentucky–just across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio–is set up for lots of out-of-towners. The major north-south thoroughfares of Interstates 75 and 71 and US 25 and US 42 bring numerous travelers through town every day.
The idea to start charging out-of-town vehicles came from the Erlanger City Council’s Revenue Generation Committee, which proposed charging at-fault, out-of-town drivers $14 for the first 30 minutes an officer is at an accident scene, an additional $7 for every 15 additional minutes the officer remains, and $154 for requiring the use of a police car.
Fields says he’s still concerned about how the policy may change people’s perception of the city. While city council members share his concern, they point to several factors, including a willingness to do almost anything to avoid raising taxes, as influencing their decision to implement the out-of-town crash policy.
Raise Taxes or Cut Services?
“We had four police cruisers demolished last year alone,” said Patty Suedkamp, a council member for 10 years. “Those have to be replaced. When John Q from Michigan crashes into John Q of Alabama on I-75, sometimes all of our police, all of our firefighters, all of our paramedics are there for two, three, or four hours. Those are hours they cannot be serving the citizens of Erlanger.”
The alternatives, Suedkamp said, are to raise the current 1 percent payroll tax levied on all workers in the city, including commuters, or cut services.
“We chose not to do that,” Suedkamp said. “Instead we came up with this policy, which I think is very creative and very fair. It’s a way of continuing to provide services to Erlanger citizens, which they pay for, they expect, and they deserve.”
Economist: It’s Fairer
University of Louisville economist Paul Coomes says he understands the dilemma cities face, and he considers the approach being taken by Erlanger, albeit different from most cities, fairer than raising property taxes on residents.
“I look at this as a user fee tied to specific human behavior,” Coomes said. “Unlike national defense or public education, which cannot be compartmentalized, this fee is along the same principle of a gas tax or a bridge toll–the more you use it, the more you pay.”
Paul Hahn, a council member for 38 years, was in the hospital when the recent discussions and votes were held. He says he would have voted against the final version of the policy because it doesn’t differentiate between travelers on the interstate–which don’t greatly help his town’s economy, he says–and those on US 42 and US 25, which together form the Dixie Highway, traveled by 20,000 to 30,000 cars daily.
“Most of the interstate traffic doesn’t stop in our town, but a lot of the traffic on the other roads does,” Hahn said.
Hahn said the city hopes to maintain good relations with other similar-sized cities in the region, which is why he would not support raising the payroll tax.
“We have a reciprocal agreement with many of the cities around us that we don’t charge their citizens a payroll tax,” Hahn said.
Emergency Costs Rising
A large drop in the number of volunteer emergency workers has also caused an expansion of the city’s payroll responsibilities. Nowhere has this been more evident than at Erlanger’s fire department, which has served the city for more than a century–mostly as an all-volunteer crew.
Suedkamp says with both parents working in many families and the added responsibilities of taking children to extracurricular activities in the evening, the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped from 170 in recent years to just 10.
“In order to provide the same level of services that people expect and deserve, we had to hire all these people,” Suedkamp said.
Start of a Trend?
The accident fee policy, part of a trend by revenue-seeking local governments, is catching on across the country.
“It’s new here, but not everywhere,” said Fields.
Small towns in other states, including Florida, Ohio, and Oregon, have implemented similar policies. Some medium-sized cities and even metropolitan areas are exploring the idea.
Pennsylvania, by contrast, recently outlawed the approach for its towns, Fields said.
Jim Waters ([email protected]) is director of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.