Ta-Nehisi Coates points to this dystopian report of a fire department standing around while a family’s house burns to the ground because its owner didn’t pay the $75 fire protection fee. This is pretty obviously bad policy. Letting things burn can lead to other things burning. It can lead to people getting killed.
A number of communities avoid running full fire departments by employing volunteer fire fighters. Others contract out with private fire-truck operators. There are many, many ways to avoid staffing a full, expensive fire department and saving those tax dollars for other more essential services (a lot of places only staff full fire departments during the summer months, for instance, and use more volunteers in the off season). Paying on a fee-for-service model just doesn’t make sense. These people are now without a home, and will probably require other, more expensive services from the local (and state, and federal) government. This is ludicrous. It is ideology taken to the brink of stupidity and then shoved headfirst into the roiling pit.
Ta-Nehisi also links to this piece by Jon Cohn who uses the opportunity to stress the importance of mandates and particularly healthcare mandates like the ones we’ll all face soon if we happen to not have health insurance already:
To me this is a classic case for requiring payment up front–that is, an individual mandate. People shouldn’t have the option to decline fire protection if protection is available. If they refuse to pay the fees, assuming they are reasonable relative to their means, they should be subject to financial penalties. The same goes for health insurance. Don’t let people go without basic coverage, but make them pay for it, to whatever extent their income allows.
Does that make me a little paternalistic? You bet. And I’m ok with that. We all make really poor decisions sometimes. And while I think suffering the consequences of those decisions is generally a good thing, or at least a necessary thing, some consequences strike me as too extreme.
Losing your life savings (or your life!) because you declined health insurance is one such consequence. Losing your house because you declined fire protection is another.
Call me old-fashioned, but to me this is a case where you simply include the fire protection in the tax bill. If someone wants to own property in Obion county, they should pay a little bit on their taxes in order to get basic fire services. No need to mess around with mandates and penalties. I can see the argument when it comes to healthcare. Healthcare is a much more complicated issue than fire protection. With fire, you basically just assume that if something catches on fire, your tax dollars will help put it out, plain and simple. Also, this isn’t the same as something like snow removal or needing water tanked in. Rural residents often have to pay for those services, and that’s fine. You choose that out of town lifestyle for a reason and at a price. Fire protection, however, is something that can affect a lot more than just your own house. It can have an impact on your neighbors and the wildlife, and public infrastructure and all sorts of other things.
Daniel Foster has more on this, and I think his arguments are all pretty strong. But again, what I think gets lost in this debate is the question of simplicity. It’s just way simpler to tax county residents and then transfer that money from the county to the city fire department than to have this sort of opt-in program. Or tax county residents and have a fire-pool that pays out to the city whenever services are rendered. In all honesty, this wouldn’t be very costly at all, unless there were a lot of fires. And then, well, better that there was fire protection in the first place.
Some public services are just better handled by public servants, police and fire chief among these. If governments use some contracting with private providers, employ volunteers, or have seasonal employment to drive down costs when services are need less, great. But requiring people to opt-in to these sorts of things is just bad policy with all sorts of unintended consequences including, ironically, more government spending on the back-end. This is one thing you certainly see with healthcare services as well, though again I think it’s fair to say that area is a lot murkier than basic fire protection which strikes me as an area with very little moral wiggle room.
Also, I wonder: Would the fire department have intervened if, say, a resident of the home was stuck in the blaze? Or is that something county residents have to pay for upfront as well?