The story of a Tennessee fire department’s crews sitting in their trucks watching a family’s house burn to the ground haunts me. Something like that isn’t supposed to happen in America. Not the America where I live.

But it did. Whether it will happen again depends on how fast the city political folks realize what a truly dumb idea they had in charging an “optional” annual fee for county fire protection and change the situation. Make that DUMB in capital letters!

I don’t like “ala carte” government, picking what government services you want from a list and paying for only those. It doesn’t work. But there are people out there right now, running for public offices across our land, advocating this truly stupid concept.

It can work on rare occasion. At our Southern Oregon house, we subscribe to ground and airambulance services for about $50 a year. We’re somewhat isolated and, at our ages, may have need of specialized care available only in major population centers. Cost of an ambulance ride across town can be $1,000 or more. If flying is involved, a $10,000 bill is not unexpected. Ambulance services will accept whatever our insurance carrier will pay if we keep the annual fee current. We don’t have to pay it but we choose to. It’s more of an investment hedge against a possible huge bill. We still have ambulance service either way. It’s just a matter of who pays for it.

But our fire department expectations are fulfilled with payment of our local taxes. In some cases, we’ve paid slightly more taxes for fire protection because of an override to cover a department’s higher costs: new equipment, new firehouse or some such. But we can’t opt in or out of coverage no matter the cost. No one should be able to.

The Tennessee family paid property taxes. What wasn’t paid was an additional $75 “fee” to cover some of the city fire department’s cost of service in the county. Whether that fee should have been paid … which in this case it wasn’t for whatever reason … is not the issue.

What is the issue is the concept of paying for protection in your taxes, then being asked to pay more as a “fire fee.” Some will pay. Some won’t, thinking “They’d never just sit there and let my house burn.” Oh, yes they will. And they did.

There are issues when fire equipment in one jurisdiction is called to another as happened here; insurance, liability, etc. Most of the time that situation is handled through joint service agreements among fire districts. In this case, since the optional $75 wasn’t paid for the cross-jurisdictional coverage, fire crews sat and watched the destruction.

Government has a cost. When it comes to issues of public safety, payment of those costs is usually by property or similar taxes. If costs go up, the prudent course is to raise taxes, seek passage of a bond issue or a specific tax override to pay the bill. If the public refuses, costs are cut, usually through reduced services. That wasn’t the case in Tennessee.

Conduct of public safety is the responsibility of professionals. Paying for public safety is the responsibility of all residents living in the covered area. Insuring adequate public safety is delivered and paid for is the responsibility of those we elect to public office. In this case, the elected folk in the city passed the political buck, opting for a voluntary “fee”

If it were my life’s remnants in those ashes, I’d be looking up the definition of “malfeasance” in my friendly dictionary. If those same electied idiots still refuse to change the situation fast, I’d start looking up some legal definitions for the word “criminal” as well.

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