Dave Albaugh was waiting to hear if his wife's car was repairable after a collision when he got an unexpected call from his insurance agent. She asked about a $550 bill to reimburse Petaluma for sending emergency personnel to the crash.
Albaugh, a retired Coast Guard lieutenant commander, was surprised, thinking his taxes already pay for such public services.
But the more he researched, the angrier he got. And he's not slowing down.
At issue is an "accident response fee" or "crash tax" that Petaluma charges nonresidents for sending fire and paramedic personnel to wrecks they cause.
Albaugh -- and some politicians and insurance companies -- say the charge is unfair, discriminatory and an illegal form of double taxation.
"It's a scheme. It's a revenue tax that's flying under the radar that the public doesn't know about," said Albaugh of Rohnert Park, whose wife and daughter work in Petaluma.
The city and its billing company, Fire Recovery USA, defend the fee as necessary to recover of the cost of services provided to those who don't pay property taxes in Petaluma. Those taxes, in part, fund emergency services.
It's an issue that surfaced about seven years ago when the economy soured and local jurisdictions sought additional ways to increase revenues to ease budget shortfalls.
State law allows municipalities to seek cost-recovery fees, but cities have passed different ordinances that create a patchwork of rules motorists are subject to -- mostly unknowingly until their insurance company receives a bill, as in Albaugh's case.
Thirty-four states allow the fees, while 13 others have banned them. In California, about five dozen cities charge the fee, although none besides Petaluma in the North Bay.
Some cities, including Sacramento, Roseville, Woodland, Huntington Beach and Ocean-side, have repealed the fee after public outcry, complaints that the cities were unfriendly to visitors or unrealized revenues. In Crescent City this month, the City Council voted not to charge fees for traffic collision response.
"There is something of a philosophical difference that's going on with this particular party," said Petaluma Fire Chief Larry Anderson, who brought the idea to the Petaluma City Council in 2009. "It's just that, it's philosophical. You're on one side or another."
Albaugh has used the power of social media to whip up a frenzy of anti-tax sentiment against Petaluma's fee, starting a group called End Petaluma Misery Tax Committee.
He is encouraging citizens to contact Mayor David Glass and soon will start circulating fliers to local businesses threatening a boycott as long as "this discriminatory practice" is in place.
It's likely that most motorists have no idea Petaluma charges such a fee.
During the June 2009 meeting in which it was considered, the City Council spent just over 30 seconds on it. There was no public comment, no council questions and no discussion. It passed 7-0.
"We're all in favor of increasing revenues. That's a good thing," quipped then-Mayor Pam Torliatt after the vote, which came after adoption of a budget that included layoffs.
Anderson presented a case in which it was estimated the city would recover $100,000 annually in fees from nonresidents at fault in collisions.
But those expectations have fallen far short, which critics say is common and is partly why some cities have discontinued the policy.