Putney to charge for emergency services

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(Host) The high cost of responding to traffic accidents on Interstate 91 has prompted the town of Putney to adopt an ordinance that passes those costs on to motorists.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Living on the Interstate corridor has been a mixed blessing for Putney. On an icy weekend last April the town’s fire and rescue volunteers responded to 16 traffic accidents in a single 48-hour period.

(Goddard) “And those ranged from simple slide offs to – we actually had half a dozen major accidents in that one two-day time frame.”

(Keese) Tom Goddard is the Putney fire chief. His 36-member volunteer squad provides emergency services for nine and a half miles of I-91.

The highway sees more traffic every year. Goddard says accidents are not only on the rise. They’re becoming more complicated, like the one that smashed more than 100 liquid propane cylinders on the road a few summers ago. The ever present possibility of an accident involving hazardous materials requires lots of costly training and gear.

Town officials say about $500,000 worth of equipment goes out on every call. That’s a lot for a town of 2,600 residents to support. Goddard says false alarms and incidents involving negligence are increasing too.

(Goddard) “And collectively we all thought that it’s not right to expect the taxpayers to year after year keep footing the bill for negligence, and keep footing the bill for services that we’re mandated to provide – that are actually costing the town a considerable amount of money.”

(Keese) Which is why the town has created an ordinance passing on the costs of emergency response to the people and vehicles involved. As of August 23, motorists and others involved in incidents requiring the department’s response will be billed for the town’s costs.

Town officials say those bills might range from a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand dollars. Costs will be divided equally among those involved. Putney residents – who pay already through their rent or taxes – will be exempt from billing unless the incident involves negligence or mischief on their part. If a student pulls a fire alarm at a local school; if an absent homeowner’s alarm goes off repeatedly because of poor maintenance, they’ll receive an invoice. People will also be charged for response to snowmobile and ATV accidents.

Karen Horne of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns thinks the ordinance will hold up in court.

(Horne) “We think that also there will be legislation in the next year or so that will make it very clear that this is the kind of thing a town can do. Because it makes sense when you really look at all the services that are generally supported by the property tax. Your choice is at some point to stop cutting services or find other ways to pay for them.”

(Keese) Horne says many towns have expressed interest in adopting ordinances similar to Putney’s. She expects quite a few will soon be following suit.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Putney.

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