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Court Allows Higher Rescue Fees For City Visitors

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - Rejecting arguments that the policy is unconstitutional, a state appeals court said Wednesday that the City of Miami can charge an extra $100 when its rescue crews transport non-residents to hospitals for emergency care.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a circuit judge's ruling in a class-action case that contended the extra charge is an unauthorized tax and violates constitutional equal-protection and intrastate-travel rights. The named plaintiff in the case, St. Petersburg resident Cheryl K. Haigley, was taken to a hospital in 2010 by the Miami Fire-Rescue Department after she fell and was injured while in the city.

A three-judge panel pointed, in part, to property taxes that Miami residents pay to help operate the emergency services and said requiring visitors to pay an extra fee "furthers the city's interest of being able to continue providing emergency transportation services to everyone in need of the services, regardless of whether the person is a resident or a non-resident."

"The city's residents, users and non-users of emergency medical transportation services alike, more than make up for the additional $100 surcharge charged non-resident users by contributing a far greater amount to the city's overall emergency services budget,'' said the 24-page ruling, written by Judge Leslie Rothenberg and joined by judges Vance Salter and Thomas Logue. "The base rate paid by individuals using the city's emergency medical transportation services is insufficient to cover the total cost, and the city could have properly determined that an extra $100 was necessary to offset that additional cost since non-residents do not contribute through the payment of ad valorem (property) taxes."

Miami has a schedule of charges for people it transports to hospitals that can vary based on factors such as treatment needs and mileage. The ruling said Haigley was charged $445, with $330 of that for basic life-support services, $15 for mileage and $100 because she was a non-resident.

The appeals court said Miami received about $42,000 from the non-resident charges in 2010.

Part of the case focused on a question about whether the charges are a user fee or a tax. But the appeals court dismissed arguments that the charges are an unauthorized type of tax.

"It is undisputed that the city provided Haigley with a particular governmental service,'' the ruling said. "The city's Fire-Rescue Department transported Haigley to a medical facility for emergency treatment. The charge assessed for this service was assessed solely to Haigley, not to a non-user of the emergency medical transportation services. Thus, the $445 the city charged Haigley was in exchange for a particular governmental service."

This report is by Jim Saunders with The News Service of Florida.



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