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Published: Wednesday, 5/20/2009

Council poised to OK fire-call billing

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo City Council next week is poised to approve Mayor Carty Finkbeiner's plan to bill homeowners' fire insurance policies for calls - a measure council failed to pass last month.

In April, council voted 6-4 to implement the fee, which would be expected to generate $500,000 through the end of 2009. It failed because approval required seven votes.

Council President Mark Sobczak yesterday said some dissenting members are willing to reverse their votes.

At issue for many is uncertainty if the city would attempt to bill homeowners who don't have fire insurance.

Fire Chief Mike Wolever has repeatedly told council it is the city's intent to only "soft bill" the fee and it would not bill homeowners directly. However, the proposed legislation would allow the city to bill homeowners directly.

"The city, or their authorized agent, subject to the conditions and limitations of this ordinance, shall submit an invoice to the person, entity or relevant insurance company covering the particular loss for the emergency services rendered," the ordinance states.

Mr. Sobczak said it has to have that language to be enforceable. "It is my understanding the insurance company will only pay for what the homeowner is liable for," he said.

Mr. Sobczak promised to repeal the ordinance the first time he learns of the city directly billing a homeowner for the fee, which could be up to $1,000.

"I know there has been a lot ballyhooed in the media," he said. "It has to be worded the way it is."

Voting against the ordinance last month were Councilmen Tom Waniewski, Lindsay Webb, Philip Copeland, and D. Michael Collins. Councilman Betty Shultz was not present, and Councilman Michael Ashford left before the vote was taken.

The rejection was perplexing to the Finkbeiner administration. A majority of council on April 8 had voted in favor of the fire service fee when it agreed to allocate the $500,000 toward the city's deficit.

Councilman George Sarantou said he contacted five insurance companies and was told the fee would not increase customer premiums and that the fee is already included in standard homeowner fire protection polices.

Ms. Webb asked for a public hearing on the matter but her request was shot down by Mr. Sobczak.

Council, during its regular meeting next week, is also expected to vote on a request by the Finkbeiner administration to cease waiving festival and park fees in order to hire back two building inspectors and a cashier who were laid off last week as part of the mayor's budget balancing cutbacks.

Mr. McNamara said the city spends money to inspect tents and other festival-related structures.

"This is not something we are just charging willy-nilly for the fun of it," he said.

Other cities have already looked to festivals to increase revenue.

Cash-strapped Philadelphia said it can no longer waive the costs of city services for festival organizers, and the national forecast is similarly cloudy for other events.

In Michigan, Gov. Jennifer Granholm plans to end state funding for the Michigan State Fair after this year. Fairs also have been canceled in the Detroit-area cities of Novi and Utica.

New York officials aren't accepting new applications for multi-block or multi-day events because of police overtime costs. The city is also raising fees for promotional events, charging as much as $38,000 for a large event.

Council also is expected next week to consider reducing Mayor Finkbeiner's salary by 10 percent to $122,400. The mayor earlier this month said he would return to the city's general fund 40 percent - $54,400 - of his $136,000 annual salary. The move was part of his plan to balance a multimillion dollar shortfall in the 2009 general fund budget.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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