Nickel-and-Diming the FDNY

SI Advance - December 19, 2010


The New York City Fire Department, like a lot of government agencies, has major budget problems. The department has been ordered by the mayor to come up with $56 million in savings during the next fiscal year.

Apparently, that dire situation has led the FDNY, in desperation, to start thinking outside the box in terms of cutting costs and increasing revenue - way, way, way outside the box.

The FDNY announced last week at a City Council hearing that it plans to impose surcharges for certain of its services starting next summer.

Under the plan, the agency would charge an "accident fee" of $490 to each driver in an accident in which there are injuries; $415 for a vehicle fire and $365 for any accident to which FDNY units respond with neither a fire or injuries. Presumably, the money for those fees would come out of the victims' own pockets, since insurance is unlikely to cover these costs.

The move is expected to bolster the city's coffers by $1 million annually.

On top of that, the FDNY wants to charge fees to 25 non-public hospitals that have standing agreements with the city to provide ambulance services through the city's 911 emergency system. These include Staten Island University Hospital and Richmond University Medical Center.

The FDNY wants $24,000 per year for each daily ambulance tour the private hospital provides. For example, a private hospital that furnishes the city with the coverage of four ambulance tours per day dispatched through 911 would have to pay $96,000 a year for the privilege. The fee is projected to raise $8.8 million a year and help defray the FDNY's annual $25-million cost of staffing and operating the Emergency Medical Dispatch Center and Online Medical Control center.

To which we say, Say what? The very idea is absurd and offensive.

As welcome as firefighters and EMTs are at accident scenes, don't New Yorkers already pay handsomely for city services, including the Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services through their hefty tax remittances?

It seems that some in the Bloomberg administration think that having the Fire Department at the ready is one thing and worth the tax bill, but that when people actually have to avail themselves of FDNY services at accident scenes, it should be regarded as added luxury and taxed accordingly.

What's next? Police officers billing crime victims on the spot?

As for the private hospitals' supposed debt to the FDNY, their ambulance services account for about 37 percent of all the ambulance tours dispatched throughout the five boroughs. On Staten Island, more than half the ambulance tours are operated by the two hospitals and other volunteer groups.

If they decided to quit, there is no way the FDNY could fill in with the same coverage.

Staten Island's three City Council members wrote a joint letter to the mayor to protest these plans pointing out that "Staten Island does not have a [Health and Hospitals Corp.] acute-care facility to pick up any of the slack currently borne by our private hospitals. Thus, it seems on first blush that Staten Island's hospitals would be more affected than hospitals in other boroughs that do have such HHC facilities."

But FDNY officials, acting on orders from City Hall, no doubt, insist that the additional charges are preferable to closing firehouses. Where is the analysis to show that these are the only options?

And so once again, the Bloomberg administration presents New Yorkers with an artificial either/or choice, manufactured to push the administration's agenda by force. The Fire Department budget has many, many expenditure lines. There are other ways to achieve savings.

What's more, the Bloomberg administration has always seemed to begrudge having to fund the Fire Department adequately, as its regular threats to close firehouses - including the current proposal to eliminate nighttime shifts at 20 firehouses - attest. The FDNY, while it must be efficient, shouldn't be subjected to the same Draconian budgetary measures agencies with less urgent business are, given its own critical mission.

As always , the administration appears to be willing to nickel-and-dime it and take its chances on public safety when it comes to funding the FDNY and the plan to charge New Yorkers twice for FDNY services is evidence of that mentality. Has the administration made the same budget demands of the more politically powerful Police Department? Hardly.

Councilman Vincent Ignizio said, "I think this Council should take a stand against the mayor and pass this bill and say to him ‘Oh no, you're not. You're not gonna pass an accident tax on the people of the City of New York,' "

So do we. This administration's increasingly outrageous money grab, however justified it seems to some desperate city officials, stops here.