Wednesday, December 21, 2011

South Fulton, Tennessee to rural residents: Pay up or watch your house burn

What should happen when you see your house burning down? Most people would probably answer that you should call 911 and wait for the fire department to arrive. Then, the fire department should try to save your property.

If you live on the outskirts of South Fulton, Tennessee (population 2,354), taking those steps might not be enough. That's because those residents who live outside the city limits do not receive fire protection unless they pay an annual $75 subscription. And, the punishment for failing to pay your subscription, is to watch your house burn.

As reported by the Associated Press, earlier this month, a couple watched their mobile home go up in flames while firefighters parked down the street and observed. And this isn't the first time this has happened. Last year, national media outlets reported when the South Fulton Fire Department refused to show up to a burning house until a subscribed neighbor called to make sure the fire did not spread to their property. The homeowner who lost his house in that fire claims he simply forgot to pay the fee that year and even offered to pay whatever amount the fire department wanted to put out his house. The fire department refused and he lost everything.

According to ABC News, the city of South Fulton has had the "pay to spray" arrangement in place for more than 20 years. David Crocker, South Fulton's mayor, says that a strict refusal to put out fires for non-subscribers is the only way to ensure that the subscription fees are paid. And the subscription fees are the only way the city can afford to assist rural residents who live outside the city limits. If a single exception is made he argues, nobody will pay their subscription fees.

Although Mayor Crocker might have a valid point, the fire earlier this month was allowed to burn for an entirely different reason. Vicky Bell said she and her boyfriend intentionally did not pay their subscription fee this year because they did not think their house would ever catch fire. For that reason, they also did not have fire insurance on the property. They did not refuse to pay their subscription fee based on a belief that the fire department would show up and put out the fire anyway. Instead, they took a chance and lost.

Mayor Crocker's tough stance might convince some people to pay their fire subscription, but others will continue to play the odds and refuse to pay. If those homes happen to catch fire though, everyone loses. The homeowners themselves will have lost all of their property and nearby neighbors, including those who paid the subscription fee, will be left with a smoldering mess next door. Property values will decrease, insurance rates will go up, and people who once owned a home will be left homeless.

In an era of tight municipal budgets, there does not seem to be an easy solution. Perhaps the city could impose a fine on those who require fire services but are not subscribed to the service. If the fine is sufficiently high, it would prevent people from taking the calculated risk of refusing to pay the subscription fee in favor of picking up the tab if the fire department is ever needed. For instance, if the fine is 20 times the amount of the annual subscription fee, someone would have to decide that they were unlikely to need fire services in the next twenty years in order for it to make financial sense not to pay the fee. The higher the fine, the more likely it is that people will subscribe.

Another alternative would be for the rural residents to quit relying on South Fulton's services altogether and establish their own fire department. As discussed recently on this blog, volunteer fire departments can provide fire services to people in rural areas. The startup cost might make such a move prohibitive however, as fire equipment is not likely to be cheap. The annual cost for residents might not be any cheaper than the system currently in place either.

As governments continue to face budget problems and contract services, it is more and more likely that rural places will face these types of problems. Rural residents are faced with the prospect of less access to government services if they refuse, forget, or are unable to pay subscription fees. If the problem becomes more widespread and the costs are prohibitively high, it seems likely that people will leave their rural homes to avoid the hazards associated with having no fire coverage.


KB said...

It seems cruel to let a house full of memories and belongings burn simply because someone forgot to pay a subscription fee to the fire department. I think having a fine is a very good solution that could ensure that the fire department gets its funds and saves a resident’s house. Does this practice not endanger nearby houses, fields, or forests? Fires can quickly get out of control and spread. If the fire department could prevent a fire’s devastating effects by putting out the initial fire as soon as possible, why would the fire department choose not to do that simply because of a small fee? I would hate to be the firefighter who sat on the sidelines watching a fire burn a block of houses down when I could have prevented such a tragedy.

ScottA. said...

When a similar story was reported a few years ago, it was a topic for a number of letters to the editor to the newspapers in Humboldt. With a lot of rural territory to cover, all of Humboldt's fire departments do report to rural fires. Most of the letter writers couldn't figure out why people back east couldn't get their acts together.

In Humboldt each fire department has a district that covers its respective town and the territory in between each town. In some places you'll see signs: "Now leaving Arcata Fire District, Entering Blue Lake Fire District." Each district collects its fees through property taxes collected by the county. If South Fulton is so worried about collecting $75, put the surrounding areas in a fire district and let the tax man collect fees. Because the tax man always finds a way of getting what's his.

Azar said...

I agree with Scott. It's ridiculous to charge people fees for fire protection and then refuse to serve them if they don't pay. A fire is an emergency and the result of a house burning down is obviously much more costly than the fee.

I realize that the economy is bad and that it is more difficult to serve certain rural areas, but you need to have all these towns in specific fire districts and have the money come out of property taxes so that everyone gets service. A person who must prioritize his/her budget may decide that the risk of a fire is too low to pay a "fire-protection" fee when he/she needs to attend to other needs. It shouldn't have to come to that- police and firemen should protect all people.