A couple of weeks ago, I received an e-mail alert, as I do whenever the words "Huntington Beach" appear in an online news story. From Associated Press, no less, it read in part like this:
"HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Nonresidents who cause car accidents in Huntington Beach could be paying some big bucks under an ordinance approved this week."
The news blip was referring to the fact that the City Council had just approved a recovery program in which non-Huntington Beach residents would have to pay for emergency response services for car accidents, car fires, and pipeline and power line damage that they were found at fault of causing.
It also stated that officials expected the ordinance to pull in about $100,000 in revenue each year.
Meet Ordinance 3888, adopted into the Municipal Code on Aug. 16.
Some readers contacted me about this, as it happens sometimes when a Huntington Beach story starts gaining traction around the country.
The first letters were mostly of the "Can you believe this?" variety, so I thought I'd reach out to some other readers for opinions. After all, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana have implemented similar programs — and nobody seemed to notice. What is it about Huntington Beach?
The messages I got back were about evenly split, pro and con. Here are a few samples:
"As a tourist destination, Huntington Beach should think twice about being so prickly. Even if it's true that 'the insurance companies will pay,' your visitors will still know you tried to stick it to them. Maybe it will earn you a few dollars, but in my case, I'll just head on down to Laguna."
"I think it's a great idea. I just moved out of H.B., where I lived for 30 years. I know how bad the traffic can get in the summer in H.B. Accidents are not only caused by those in the cars, but also by pedestrians. I have had many friends who were injured because out-of-town pedestrians caused them to have an accident. I know that H.B. gets a lot of their revenue from out-of-towners, but I don't think it's the drunk drivers, or drunks in general, that are responsible for bringing in that revenue. If you know what the consequences will be you might be a little more careful."
I also reached out to City Councilman Keith Bohr, who told me this:
"Relatively speaking, we have received a lot of e-mails saying they do not like it and some say they will now avoid visiting H.B. When I say a lot, we are talking about maybe a dozen.
"Bottom line, times are tough, and along with the many cuts we need to make, we also need to things to generate revenues where we can. Taxing an out-of-towner's insurance if they cause an accident that requires chemical spill clean-up and/or jaws-of-life extraction seems quite reasonable to me."
Finally, Steve Bone, president and chief executive of the Huntington Beach Marketing and Visitors Bureau, shared this with me: "The bureau, in cooperation with the hotels and H.B. Chamber of Commerce, is reviewing the possible impact of the emergency services fee on the visitor community and our neighbors visiting us, and is communicating its concerns to the city."
This is a tough one. On the one hand, tough as times are, many cities are doing things like this to save money. Then again, if all it saves is $100,000, is it really worth the PR black eye that it seems to be becoming? Plus, what about other questions it begs: Someday, will this extend to other types of accidents not involving cars? What if an out-of-town drunk falls in the ocean? Will he have to pay to be saved?
I think therein lies a big part of the problem, how this thing was presented — or not. In the original article I read, the fact that similar laws are in other neighboring cities was buried. Someone at City Council, in my view, should have explained up front that, like many other places, Huntington Beach needs to do this. They also should have explained in fine detail what exactly it entails, maybe even held a press conference to control how this thing met the public.
Pieces of news like this need to be managed properly and explained clearly. Otherwise, it results in the screaming "Don't have a wreck in Surf City!" headlines.
That said, until it's applied in real-word conditions, it's hard to say whether this is a good or bad idea. One thing's for sure, though — when that happens, the world will know about it.
After all, this is Huntington Beach.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.