NOTE: The following represents the analysis-based opinion of the author and do not reflect those of his employer or any other affiliations.
WARNING!!! The following includes positive perspective on a Conservative commentator’s take on a public policy issue.
By Kenneth Hunter, Guest Blogger
South Fulton, TN, is the northern point of what I refer to as the “Tri-Cities” of Northwest Tennessee (along with Union City and a frequent destination during my college days, Martin). In case you’re wondering, they’re “South Fulton” because they border Fulton, KY.
Now that I’ve offered an essential geography lesson, let’s discuss how this little slice of heaven took center stage in the age-old debate over the “Tragedy of the Commons.”
South Fulton is in Obion County, where unincorporated residents do not receive fire protection services from their county government. Fire departments are established in each of Obion County’s eight municipalities.
Prior to a couple of years ago, South Fulton’s fire department would not respond to any calls beyond its jurisdiction boundaries. In response to requests from neighboring residents, the City decided to offer fire protection within its “rural services area” for a $75 annual fee. This is offered as an opt-in plan, though the City does make multiple efforts to make sure all eligible unincorporated residents area aware of the plan.
Last week, the home of Gene and Paulette Cranick, unincorporated residents who were eligible for but chose not to pay the fire service subscription fee, caught fire and eventually burned to the ground. Despite numerous 911 calls and pleas for assistance, the South Fulton Fire Department would not response. The department did respond once a neighboring resident who had paid for the service called in to report that the fire spread to his property. In that situation, firefighters only did what was necessary to avoid the spreading of the fire to the subscriber’s parcel.
The Cranicks, who opted not to pay the subscription, offered to pay for protection costs on-the-spot. However, South Fulton’s policy was firm: payments must be made in advance.
Since reaching the ether of the Internet this weekend, the story has made national news and generated public debate. It established prevalence as a topic on popular national shows hosted by Glenn Beck and others, as well as in commentaries by the New York Time’s Paul Krugman and contributors to National Review’s popular blog, The Corner. On the day this article was written, the topic “firemen let house burn” was among the top 10 topics discussed on the Internet in the US, according to Google Trends.
For some, this issue has touched an emotional nerve. Others see this as a critical test of upholding a more libertarian model for citizen participation in and funding of government services, seeing whether or not practices can be upheld to make sure that circumstances do not devolve where the oft-discussed “tragedy of the commons” develops itself.
I realize there are those who read this article who are completely dumbfounded that fire protection is not a service guaranteed at some level for all American residents and landowners. This is a reality, and it serves as one of the primary reasons I prefer to locate to incorporated areas with their own fire departments, funded with property tax dollars.
For some, especially in rural areas, the “government that governs least governs best” is more than a slogan. It is a way of life they are willing to embrace, good or bad. Those desiring additional services, and willing to contribute what is necessary to provide them through taxes or fees, find themselves locating to incorporated areas, even if they bring the cities and town to them through annexation.
The reality, however, is that in far less and far more serious situations, South Fulton’s fire service solution for surrounding unincorporated residents represents issues that all local governments find themselves with. We know there are services we provide that are sought both by residents within our jurisdiction and those living beyond. We must have the means, structurally and legally, to collect equitable revenues across the board so all recipients are active contributors to the continued delivery of effective service.
The greatest challenge we face, regardless the service, is when we are faced with actually telling someone “no” because they did not pay. In the case of the Cranick’s, City of South Fulton officials made a conscious decision not to offer a “last second” option in order to ensure that the potential for “free loading” service recipients was minimized. If the demand for services with these unincorporated areas is too great, and payment for services is not effectively enforced, South Fulton’s resources may be stretched too thin, negatively impacting its ability maintaining quality service for in-jurisdiction residents and businesses who provide most of their needed finances.
Should participation in paying for government services be a means of testing eligibility for the sake of equity? In cases like this, as cold as it sounds, I believe it should. So did Glenn Beck, who drew a comparison to the potential for similar problems under proposed healthcare reform. Whether you agree with Mr. Beck or not, his openness to seriously examine the potential ramifications of the original intent-focused, limited government ideology he is actively promoting shows significant maturity. Unlike many who discuss the essential balance between freedom and personal responsibility, Beck shows a willingness to honestly identify likely positives and negatives for all parties involved.
Overall, the public debate on this issue has incorporated multiple arguments and viewpoints. While some make the heart string appeal for moral imperative and delivery regardless of location, financial realities of services like fire protection make it far more difficult. As a local government budget professional, I cannot imagine the difficulties South Fulton and similar cities face because of the lack of similar services for unincorporated areas.
Other alternatives are available. I am grateful not only to live and work with a great, professional fire department here in Rocky Mount, but also have counties where unincorporated areas maintain volunteer fire districts funded with tax levies. Through a series of mutual aid agreements, our City and the rural volunteer departments supplement each others’ services as necessary to ensure the highest possible quality to our residents. It may not be a perfect solution, but compared to the limited options that face residents in Obion County and other areas without guaranteed fire service, it is an honest slice of heaven.
Without sitting down and talking to elected officials and administrators for South Fulton and Obion County, there is no way to really understand the circumstances that forced South Fulton to maintain a hard line on fire protection beyond its jurisdiction limits. It would be interesting to see if issues such as annexation, city-county disagreements, or other means of political infighting often prevalent in rural areas (the closest explanation I can find to suggest how terse relationships are in the area is this local story).
Regardless the debate, the incident does remind residents and the elected representatives of the importance of fire protection. Ironically, or otherwise, Obion County’s Commission Budget Committee approved an agreement between the County and all of its municipalities (except South Fulton) to offer fire subscriptions to unincorporated residents, utilizing City departments. It appears that the plan replicates South Fulton’s program to include the entire County, offering an option for utilization by all property owners.
The economic challenges facing and awaiting local governments across the country, not to mention the likelihood that necessary State and Federal budget cuts will impact funding for local (subsidized) programs, will force us to evaluate not only how select services are offered, but also the distribution of benefit across populations. The South Fulton incident will serve as an opening salvo in a battle over delivery guarantees and the means we utilize to make sure they can be provided without creating financial heartache for governments, or their taxpayers.
ASPA Member Kenneth Hunter is an MPA graduate of Thee University of Georgia with more than a decade of experience in local government finance. Kenneth is the Budget & Evaluation Manager for the City of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and serves on the Executive Committee of the Association for Budgeting & Financial Management and is a Board Member and Webmaster for the North Carolina Local Government Budget Association. You can follow him online at http://facebook.com/kwhunter or http://kwhunter.tumblr.com.