Commissioner says I-Team uncovers double dipping

When the fire department shows up, you don't expect to get a bill. But that's exactly what's happening in parts of Georgia. Fire departments are charging insurance companies, and sometimes you, for accident clean up. But the fire commissioner sits down with Dana Fowle in her exclusive FOX 5 I-Team investigation and calls it a clear case of double dipping. 

We're talking about being billed hundreds of dollars an hour when these fire departments show up to your vehicle accident. But when I sat down with Fire Commissioner Hudgens, he said, if you get a bill like this, don't pay it. 

"They're not technically breaking the law, but the consumer doesn't have to pay it," said Commissioner Ralph Hudgens.  

He couldn't have been more clear when we told him what we'd learned after this December accident in Lumpkin County. 

Frederick Turner described it this way, "My son had an accident. Fell sleep after working on his job."

The Powder Springs man said his son was tired. He had his first big job out of college and was heading back late to the city. He's a mentor with a high school robotics team. 

The car was totaled, but his son was OK.  He'd learned a lesson about getting enough sleep. But his father was about to learn another one. 

The Lumpkin Country fire department sent an invoice from Fire Recovery USA for clean up. 

"It's almost $1,400," said Mr. Turner.  

It was for "emergency response services." 

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The bill originally went to his insurance company, as they usually do, but the claim was denied. That's when he got the bill. 

The Fox 5 I-Team discovered it's an emerging trend by fire departments in metro Atlanta to charge for accident clean up. Mr. Turner's bill was just more than $400 an hour to "restore the scene to a non-hazardous condition."

We had no luck getting the Lumpkin Country fire chief to return our calls or our emails. The county manager did talk and said the county needs that extra money to make ends meet.  He said consider it a user fee. Well, the commissioner could not disagree more. He says it's double dipping. 

"They're already being paid for it with the premium tax that we send them."

The premium tax. It's a state tax paid by your insurance company. The money collected goes to local governments. The state told me it handed out $526 million last year. And that money is earmarked for services like fire protection. 

"It's supposed to pay for these clean ups," said the Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner. 

State records provided by Commissioner Hudgens shows Lumpkin County last year alone got nearly $1.3 million from the premium tax. 

"We are more than adequately paying for any and all services with the premium tax that we send them every year." 

But Lumpkin County's contract with the third party biller allows drivers to be charged more than $400 an hour for basic clean up, $605 for car fires.  For extrication, it's $1,800. And, $2,200 for helicopter service. 

Fire Recovery Services refused to cooperate when we asked which Georgia counties and cities were using them to collect money. We did some digging and found Hall and Clayton Counties, as well as College Park, East Point and Union City have similar deals. 

As the commissioner said off the top, if you get a scary bill like this that says "FINAL ATTEMPT," you are under no obligation to pay it. And billers know it. 

The commissioner added, "It's kind of like fishing. They're throwing that bill out, and if the consumer pays it, they've caught a fish. If the consumer doesn't pay it, they fold up their tackle box and go home.

See the second story in this series: