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Cities tax outsiders to make money

Strapped for cash, cities are reluctant to raise taxes on their own residents.

LANSING, Mich. — Out-of-towners would be wise to drive carefully when passing through Fraser, a suburb about 15 miles northeast of Detroit.

The city this year began charging non-residents who cause wrecks for the public safety and emergency response time involved in the accident. The fee is one of many revenue-raising ideas being considered by cities nationwide dealing with budget problems.

Reluctant to raise taxes on their own residents, local governments are looking increasingly at out-of-towners. But critics complain the fees amount to taxation without representation, or double taxation, since those people already pay for roads and public safety services in their own communities. And unsuspecting out-of-town motorists who’ve have faced the bills say they send a hostile message.

"You’re not welcome here — outsiders not welcome," said Jay Middleton, a Mount Laurel, N.J., resident who fought a "crash tax" charged in a Philadelphia suburb. "That’s what it says to me."

Middleton got caught up in the "crash tax" issue after a fender-bender while moving his daughter home from college a few years ago. Radnor Township, Pa., billed him $276.08 for the police time. The concept of governments hitting up visitors for cash isn’t new. States often charge nonresidents more than locals for hunting and fishing licenses on the theory visitors don’t pay the regular taxes used to support parks and recreation systems. A number of cities impose income taxes on suburbanites who come into a city to work. Omaha, Neb., planned a commuter fee that critics called a "wheel tax" before state lawmakers moved to block it this year.

Across Michigan, cities are struggling to fund their emergency services. The state has lost more than 4,500 police officers and firefighters in the past decade, mostly because of lower tax revenues during the recession and the state’s economic decline. Fraser, a town of about 15,000 in southeast Michigan, has lost 13 public safety officer positions since 2006 — a drop of 25 percent.

"I think we are now at the point where it’s push versus shove," Fraser city manager Richard Haberman said.

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