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Sudbury man upset with $4K firefighting 'bill' he got after house fire

But city says bill is actually an insurance claim that doesn't cost taxpayers anything, and is something several Ontario cities now do

A city man is angry that he got a bill for more than $4,000 for the costs of city firefighting crews extinguishing a blaze at his home in March 2017.

Gord Rowe says he recently got a bill from a company called Fire Marque saying if he didn't pay the bill, the costs would be added to his property tax bill.

"We got the invoice ... without any notice from the city whatsoever," Rowe said Thursday. "I immediately turned it over to my adjuster — I'm with Allstate Insurance."

While his insurer is willing to pay the bill, Rowe said he thinks it's an unfair form of double taxation. A former employee of Allstate himself, he said he can't understand why his property taxes isn't enough to pay for fire services.

"They feel they shouldn't have to pay this, and I tend to agree because I pay taxes,” he said. “And the fire department is the only public service that actually bills extra. I'm balking on the principle of why should I pay for it when I pay taxes?"

"This is just ridiculous. Does this mean I have to stand in my driveway with a credit card on garbage day?"

Approved in November 2015, the city signed a five-year agreement with Fire Marque to collect money from a homeowners' insurance policy, many of which include coverage for the costs of firefighting.

Fire Marque has similar agreements with dozens of municipalities, including Thunder Bay, Oshawa, Huntsville and Cornwall. Greater Sudbury Fire Chief Joseph Nicholls said there have been 80 claims in the two years the program has operated, and the city netted between $85,000 and $90,000 a year in new revenue as a result of the agreement. 

Fire Marque does all the legwork to collect the fees, keeping 30 per cent and giving the city the remainder.

"It's a revenue-generating opportunity for fire services and it's part of almost all insurance policies," Nicholls said. "Typically, that money, because we didn't really have a way of collecting it, the insurance companies would keep that."

It's coverage that most homeowners have been paying for without even being aware that it's part of their policy, he said. Other than an inquiry from a city councillor, Rowe's objections are the first he's aware of.

"It's been working very well over the last two years,” Nicholls said of the Fire Marque program. “But what we have found is there are two or three insurance companies, mostly U.S. based, who won't pay it unless there is a liability against the policy owner."

For the insurance companies that resist, he says Fire Marque has to send the homeowner a bill, similar to what Rowe received. At that point, the insurance companies pay as they are obligated to do, Nicholls said.

"That triggers the insurance company to pay that liability off."

The bill is not a form of taxation, he added, since there is no charge sent out unless the homeowner makes an insurance claim. All the city is doing is recouping a small part of their costs through insurance coverage homeowners are already paying for.

"They've already paid the insurance company to pay the bill,” Nicholls said. “They've been paying premiums, for I assume, years for that coverage and they've now made a claim for fire insurance. That's just part of the process.

"And that money goes back into fire service and the delivery of fire services for things like education and prevention and training and equipment. It helps reduce the impact on the tax levy for everybody."

But Rowe said he still thinks people are being charged for a service they already pay for. 

"I'm just making the public aware of what's going on," he said. "Why is this money going to a collection agency where they immediately take 30 per cent off the top? You're going to give 30 per cent of it to a collection agency that operates down south? The money isn't even staying here."

Since his insurance company is willing, Rowe says he will likely let them pay the bill, but he's hoping to get a little revenge.

"I have a very good mind to get the insurance company to give me the cheque and I'll go pay the tax bill in nickels at city hall,” he said. “You want your money that bad, that's how I'll do it."