Your money or your house
On Sept. 29, South Fulton, Tenn., volunteer firefighters arrived at the scene of a house on fire in an unincorporated part of surrounding Obion County. However, once they found out that the homeowner had failed to pay the $75 annual fee the city charged for fire protection services outside city limits, the firefighters refused to fight the blaze. The homeowner claimed that he thought the fire department would allow him to pay the fee later, as it had in a previous incident, but South Fulton officials said they needed the fee up front.
American City & County asked the readers of its weekly e-mail newsletters if the South Fulton firefighters should have put out the fire before collecting the fee. Below are some of the responses.
“I can understand that if the homeowner was allowed to pay at the time of the fire, then nobody would feel obligated to pay up front and the revenue stream would dry up. It would be like buying auto insurance after you wrecked your car and expecting them to fix it. On the other hand, there was a moral obligation to fight the fire in the same way that a hospital does not kick someone to the gutter when they have no health insurance. They should have fought the fire and billed the homeowner for the full cost of the response, as an incentive to others to pay the nominal fee. Those dead dogs and cats could have been children or elderly residents. I don’t know how they can look in the mirror and be proud to be firefighters. Fire protection should not be treated like garbage pick-up. It is a core service to the community and should be covered by property taxes or a fire district tax, not annual fees.”
— Eric Barz, town planner, Windsor, Conn.
“We have a law in Colorado that allows fire departments to collect for their expenses to calls outside their municipal/district boundaries. If the property owner does not pay the expenses, a tax lien can be filed on the property and it can be sold at auction in order to pay the responding department(s). Perhaps the Tennessee legislature should look at a similar approach.”
— Kevin Klein, director, Colorado Division of Fire Safety Denver
“Like most states, I am almost assured that the State of Tennessee has a fire prevention requirement that includes ethics regarding volunteer and paid emergency services. That includes fire response, but, like most states, Tennessee also includes provisions to protect these folks that do not perform.”
— Sam Merrick, retired federal safety and health compliance officer, Somerset, Ky.
“This is a dilemma. Pay for fire service or don’t pay for fire service. It is like when you do not pay for your water bill, the water is turned off. When you do not pay for your electric and gas bill, they are also turned off. When you go to use a debit card at the grocery store, and it comes back to the store [with] not enough funds, you do not get the food. Police and fire services should be just the same. [If] you do not pay the fee up front, then you do not get the services.”
— Gene Putman, transportation manager, Office of Management and Budget, Thornton, Colo.
“Interesting subject and much discussed on local Atlanta radio. At first blush, I believe that the fire should have been controlled or put out. However, the homeowner was aware of his responsibility, too. Pay the $75. Like any other insurance policy, if it lapses, you lose. An alternative might be to respond and put the fire out and then charge the homeowner a hefty fine [of perhaps] $5,000. But, what are the odds of having a fire? Would homeowners be willing to take the chance and [leave] no revenue available to support the service? [Perhaps the answer is to] have the $75 plus a small service charge added to the homeowner’s insurance policy and the insurance company forwards the $75 to the fire department.”
— Don Rehwaldt, mayor, Tyrone, Ga.
“Having worked in county public works for 30 years, our response to any disaster or catastrophe, as I believe it should have been there in Tennessee, has been [to] take care of those in peril or in danger or their property and house, and worry about the money later. No questions. Just deal with the emergency. In this case, I believe the city manager had directed the firefighters to not battle the blaze. As a firefighter, I might ask myself, ‘Am I going to be fired for doing what I think is right?'”
— Bud Thompson, project manager, Mesa County, Colo.
“I feel sorry for both parties involved. As a volunteer [firefighter] for 28 years, it would be very hard for me to stand and watch a person’s property burn, but as an administrative officer, I also realize how expensive it is to operate a fire department. Maybe the town should help by requiring the fee be paid as a part of the taxes, and that way everyone would be required to pay. If a precedent is set that you pay when the service is needed, no one would pay unless they had a fire, and the department would not have funds to operate. At a fire scene is not the time to have to make these decisions. It sounds as if all the parties need to sit down at the table and work this out before it happens again.”
— Shelton Toler, chief building inspector, Craven County, N.C.