LUMPKIN COUNTY, Ga. - A FOX 5 I-Team investigation has finds that some fire departments in metro Atlanta now charge - insurance companies and sometimes individuals - for clean up after car accidents. It's a new money-making trend for local governments the insurance commissioner calls double dipping.
A Powder Springs man got one of those bills after his son's single car accident. He was charged nearly $1,400 for the cleanup. But that wasn't the only surprise. We looked at the call log from that night and found that more than one group was there for cleanup that night.
Last December late at night Fredrick Turner's son fell asleep at the wheel after a long day in his first job out of college.
"It was just overworked, less sleep," he said.
The accident photos show the car went off this Lumpkin County road, hit a tree, landing back on the highway. The single car accident left some debris in the wooded area, some outside the car door, and there appears to be a trail of fluids.
"He received some care on the scene; I guess abrasion over his eye. He went to the hospital," Mr. Turner said.
In the end, his son had minor injuries. Then, predictably the bills showed up.
The hospital bill wasn't that much, remembered Fredrick Turner.
The tow truck tab wasn't bad either - $175.
But more than two months later an unexpected bill came. The fire department sent an invoice for cleanup.
"It's almost $1,400."
Through a third-party billing company called Fire Recovery USA, the Lumpkin County Fire Department charged Turner more than $400 an hour to "restore the scene to a non-hazardous condition."
That surprised Mr. Turner, because not only was it a bill from a fire department, he'd already paid for clean up once. He paid the tow truck driver $50 to clean up the debris at the scene.
"He even put the words 'excessive clean up," he said looking at the bill. "And sweeping because he put down an absorbent for the oil spots and the anti-freeze. He did all of that for $50.
The Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens feels strongly about this new moneymaking tax.
"They can send a bill and the consumer doesn't have to pay it."
Mr. Hudgens was surprised to hear that our FOX 5 I-Team investigation uncovered a third-party billing company used not just by Lumpkin County but also Hall and Clayton Counties, as well as College Park, East Point and Union City.
The commissioner says he considers it a clear-cut case of double dipping. And he wants to make it clear, you do not have to pay this bill.
"They're already being paid for it with the premium tax that we send them," he said.
The premium tax is paid by your insurance company. The money collected goes to local governments.
State records show last year alone Lumpkin County received nearly $1.3 million earmarked for services like fire protection.
The call log from the accident that night shows there wasn't just the tow truck operator and the fire department cleaning up. A county road crew also showed up but they did not bill Mr. Turner.
Over in College Park, the fire chief there says, yes, it also bills for accident clean up, but with restrictions - like only billing insurance companies, never the driver.
Chief Wade Elmore hears the double dipping argument about the premium tax, but the premium tax money that goes to local government is based on population.
"Our residential population is around 14,000 - 15,000, but the daytime population is around 300,000 because of the hotels, because of the car rental companies.
And College Park doesn't charge its own citizens, just drivers passing through.
We only bill non-residents on car accidents, car fires and maybe some hazmat calls.
Much different than Lumpkin County's system where the county manager says they do charge the locals when their fire department cleans up the accident scene.
"I think they are trying to take advantage of consumers," said the commissioner.