Monday, October 04, 2010

Wherein I side with the glibertarians

Okay, based on my entirely-scientific and not at all shoddy survey of each and every one of the Internets, I am the only one who read this story and thought the homeowner was a fucking goof:
OBION COUNTY, Tenn. - Imagine your home catches fire but the local fire department won't respond, then watches it burn. That's exactly what happened to a local family tonight.

A local neighborhood is furious after firefighters watched as an Obion County, Tennessee, home burned to the ground.

The homeowner, Gene Cranick, said he offered to pay whatever it would take for firefighters to put out the flames, but was told it was too late. They wouldn't do anything to stop his house from burning.

Each year, Obion County residents must pay $75 if they want fire protection from the city of South Fulton. But the Cranicks did not pay.
Ahem. $75 a year amounts to $6.25 a month. If you're super-curious, it's about 21 cents a day. It is, if you're a homeowner, an entirely reasonable sum of money--one could almost say trivial.

Except it's not trivial, this is about your house not burning down you moron. By the quotes elsewhere in the story, it's clear Gene Cranick knew the rules--pay the subscription and be served, or don't pay and don't. He gambled, and lost.

There are a ton of interesting arguments to be made about whether a service like this should be fee-based to begin with--and I side with Chet in thinking that mass privatization of public services is basically a case of political amnesia.

But that doesn't seem to be what's actually going on here. Thanks to Kevin Drum, I suspect the only real lesson to draw from this story is something far more banal--the Cranicks were trying to enjoy a low-tax lifestyle with the security of a high-service city nearby, and it bit them right in the ass.

This is an ongoing problem in Obion County, Tennessee, and the people who live in the rural areas around South Fulton know very well what they're doing. From a PDF that Drum links to, the important points of this scenario are:

1) There is no county-wide fire service in Obion County.

2) There are city fire departments throughout Obion that, while funded by city taxpayers, will respond to calls for help outside the city lines.

3) All of these services charge a fee. There is no legal way for the fire services to force you to pay. So more than half of the fine, upstanding rural citizens of Obion County--after having their homes and loved ones saved by urban tax dollars incarnated as a firefighter and a hose--cheat. Or, if you prefer, steal a vital public service.

4) In response, the majority of city fire services charge rural homeowners an ongoing subscription fee to be served. This nicely avoids a number of problems having to do with handing individuals wads of cash or blank cheques in an emergency situation.

5) Some stupid motherfuckers still refuse to pay, believing--contrary to the explicit policies of the cities they rely on--that they'll get away with it.

So I'm sorry, on any number of levels I just can't be sympathetic to this guy. Obion County should have a public, county-wide fire service--but it doesn't now, and if you live in Obion County, you know this. You know this because the city of South Fulton calls rural residents at the end of July to make sure they know they're in arrears, something the city did in this case and this family ignored. Rural homeowners who don't pay the service are tax cheats, pure and simple, trying to get the benefit of living close to a city without paying the taxes for it.

Now, a bit of Googling that I'm not going to retread here (investigation vs. privacy--where's the line?) reveals that Gene Cranick is the owner of a not particularly prosperous farm, though substantially more prosperous than the surrounding county. Maybe the Cranicks just fell on hard times--not uncommon in the US these days--and they couldn't pay the bill, though my bet is that's not what we're looking at here.

Sadly for Gene Cranick, his son Tim went and cold-cocked the South Fulton Fire Chief and is now in prison awaiting a plea hearing. Now the family is not only out of their home and life posessions, but they're looking at how to pay the legal bills on a felony assault charge.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. We can also say, apparently, that paying your taxes upfront is a lot cheaper than the alternative.

UPDATE: Yup, I'm on the same side as the brain trust at the National Review.

5 comments:

Hamilton-Lovecraft said...

Do you not think that the sane thing for the firefighters to do would be to fight the fire and then bill the homeowner way more than $75?

Gar Lipow said...

>Do you not think that the sane thing for the firefighters to do would be to fight the fire and then bill the homeowner way more than $75?

Did you miss the part in the post where it was noted that when fire departments do that, the person whose home was saved doesn't pay? I actually know of some fire departments run that way. You pay a year sub, or if your home catches on fire and you have not subbed you pay $20,000. But that is still a fire district serving people who within the district. And they have various ways to actually collect if somebody does not pay. Not an option for a fire department serving people outside their jurisdiction.

Chet Scoville said...

I certainly get what you're saying here, but I think it's important that the Cranicks' decision not to pay is a direct result of this idiotic, user-fee-based system. If the fire services were universal and paid for by property taxes, the issue would never have come up.

Chet Scoville said...

Also, re: Derbyshire. Stand up for crunchiness? My God, what a vacuum.

Gar Lipow said...

>ut I think it's important that the Cranicks' decision not to pay is a direct result of this idiotic, user-fee-based system. If the fire services were universal and paid for by property taxes, the issue would never have come up.

Oh absolutely. Fire fighting may be the most classic public good ever, even more than education and health. Not handling it through taxes is idiotic.

This example is even more idiotic than the usual subscription service. Typically, subscription services are run by the municipality served, which means if someone has not subscribed you can bill them through the nose after the fire is put out and have a way to collect. Still worse than a tax system - inefficient and generally results in lower quality fire service. But the system actually used is even worse than that.

So we don't really disagree. But the wrongdoing was first by the county for choosing this exceptionally stupid option, and the homeowner for not subscribing.