Government Growth: A Case Study

This story made a pretty big splash last week as the national media got a sensational bit of shockery and allowed everyone to get into high dudgeon: No pay, no spray: Firefighters let home burn.

The splashy details:

Firefighters in rural Tennessee let a home burn to the ground last week because the homeowner hadn’t paid a $75 fee.

Gene Cranick of Obion County and his family lost all of their possessions in the Sept. 29 fire, along with three dogs and a cat.

A number of people have tried to turn this into a stunning indictment of capitalism. A for-profit fire department? That’s ludicrous!

But it’s an uninformed reading of the situation. Whether willfully or out of ignorance, those who try to indict this particular system don’t get it, but that’s not necessary for sacred ceremony of High Dudgeon of the Statist Order.

Let’s look again:

The fire started when the Cranicks’ grandson was burning trash near the family home. As it grew out of control, the Cranicks called 911, but the fire department from the nearby city of South Fulton would not respond.

“We wasn’t on their list,” he said the operators told him.

Cranick, who lives outside the city limits, admits he “forgot” to pay the annual $75 fee. The county does not have a county-wide firefighting service, but South Fulton offers fire coverage to rural residents for a fee.

Cranick says he told the operator he would pay whatever is necessary to have the fire put out.

His offer wasn’t accepted, he said.

The fire fee policy dates back 20 or so years.

“Anybody that’s not inside the city limits of South Fulton, it’s a service we offer. Either they accept it or they don’t,” said South Fulton Mayor David Crocker.

This house lies outside the fire department’s jurisdiction. It offered residents who did not pay taxes to support the fire department an option for firefighting response for a mere $75 annual fee. This fellow opted out, whether through ignorance, oversight, or just feeling lucky, and when he needed the service, he was not entitled to it.

He said he would pay anything while his house was on fire, but at that point, he would promise anything. Whether he would eventually pay anything, indeed whether he, a rural Tennesseean who cannot pay $75 a year, could pay anything. Expecting the fire department to run a credit check or to accept credit cards on the scene is foolish, and to be honest, it’s almost as big of a public relations hit.

If the fire department did put out the fire of this nonsubscriber to their service who does not pay taxes to support the fire department, it would create a pricing incentive for other rural residents to not pay the annual fee with the expectation that the fire department would come and put out their fires at absolutely no monetary cost to them. When subscriptions dropped enough, the fire department would probably cancel the service at all and let the houses in the county burn.

Of course, the county officials in Obion County are probably preparing dramatic action at this time. “Fellows, we’ve been spotlighted in the national media as a backward county. We must do something to improve our standing in the eyes of the nation! We need expensive Wayfinder signs immediately! Or, barring that, we need professional firefighters paid for by county taxes to cover the county!”

I don’t know how it is all across Missouri, but in the regions where I have lived (the St. Louis area and Springfield), I have been covered either by the local city fire department (in Webster Groves, a suburb of St. Louis) or by a special fire district covering multiple municipalities (as in Maryland Heights, Missouri, in the suburbs of St. Louis and in unincorporated Greene County near Springfield where the Battlefield Fire District covers the town of Battlefield and nearby environs). Let’s use the home I own in Webster Groves as an example. In 2009, I paid $3,139 in tax on it. The portion that goes to the city of Webster Groves is 10.8%. That’s $314. Of that $314, $42 goes to public safety pensions alone. The remainder comes from the general obligations portion of the property tax, capital improvements sales tax, and other city revenue. All in all, it’s more than $75 a year. My home is a pretty modest house for Webster Groves, where the homes can run over $1,000,000. So the tax burden is greater on other people.

As a result of one man’s decision of whether he was at risk for fire and his relative’s risky fire behavior (the grandson was burning garbage near the home, remember), the public will welcome the growth of government in this regard. A professional fire department covering Olbion County will come with its ongoing annual expenses of salaries, pensions, maintenance, training, equipment upgrades, and whatnot. Only the government can provide.

Although municpally funded and district-funded fire departments are prevalent, they are not the only models. Others include subscription-only fire departments, more prevalent historically than contemporarily, but before the government assumed this power, citizens had to provide for themselves and subscription services allowed them to pool resources to buy equipment. Volunteer fire departments still exist; when I was growing up in Jefferson County, Missouri, the High Ridge area was covered by a volunteer corps (although it has since gone to the district model). Pasadena, Texas, covers a city of over 150,000 with a volunteer fire department. And the subscription to nearby fire department model that did not fail in this case.

Discuss the efficacy of different models, particularly as related to regional needs and citizen freedom, though, and opponents will paint you as a pro-fire extremist. Discussion over. Heart-wrenching anecdote, even anecdotes that feature free citizens living with the consequences of their decisions, + Media Outrage = More Government.

And many citizens, who normally would rankle at government, reflexively applaud its growth.