Most of us take for granted that if there's an emergency at our home, like a fire, with a simple phone call help will come quickly. In many instances, the emergency is handled with no loss of human life and minimal property damage. Sometimes, though, first responders refuse to help.

Tennessee

On September 29, 2010, a trash fire outside Gene Cranick's mobile home went out of control and ignited Cranick's home. Naturally, he called 9-1-1 for help. Unfortunately, his home burned to the ground. He lost all of his possessions and four pets.

It wasn't because the fire was too big or the fire department was too late. No, it was because the fire department refused to answer the call and put out the fire. But they did protect the home of Cranick's neighbor. Cranick lost everything because he - unlike his neighbor - didn't pay his yearly fire subscription fee.

Pay-to-Spray

Cranick lives in a rural area outside the city limits of South Fulton, Tennessee. The City's fire department responds to fires in the City and in the surrounding county where Cranick lives, but only if the owner of the property has paid a $75 yearly fee. Cranick didn't pay the fee in 2010, and the fire department was told by City officers not to respond. He claims he forgot. City officials say residents are reminded by mail and telephone each year to pay the fee.

These pay-to-spray systems aren't new. It's been in force in South Fulton for about 20 years. Other areas in Tennessee have similar systems. If you're old enough, you may remember a time when your parents' home had window stickers showing they had paid fire service fees.

Why?

It's simple economics. Many towns and cities, like South Fulton, have trouble paying for services. It costs money to respond to and put-out fires - money that's simply not in the city coffers.

There costs for firefighters, equipment, and everything else needed to respond to a single fire, in cities like Fulton, where they're asked to respond outside the city. In addition, the department has to arrange for firefighters from another area to cover South Fulton in case there's emergency while the City's firefighters are gone. Fees and tax revenues from the local residents may not cover all those costs.

More Common?

These same economic realities may mean an increase in fee-based services. As the US economy struggles in its recovery, cities and towns across the US face budget crunches and crises. They need to save money and cut costs anywhere they can.

Public services like fire protection are often on the chopping block. Generally, cities and towns aren't required by any law to provide such services. Many residents pay for these services though property taxes. When property values plummet, tax revenues go down. So, it's either cut services or find another way to pay for them. Subscriptions make sense.

What doesn't make sense is letting a home burn down while firefighters stand by. Cranick claims he offered to pay any bill for the services. The City responded that it's not practical to let residents pay after the fact because no one would pay the fee until after the fire. A common ground needs to be found that makes everyone happy.

What You Can Do

You may or may not be in an area with a fee-based system for public services, or your city or town may be thinking about going that way. Either way, here's what you can do:

  • Make sure you pay your subscription fee. Ask the city or town about making automatic deductions from your checking or savings account, credit card payments, or extra fees on your water or property tax bills
  • Vote for tax levies and other ballot measures aimed at increasing or maintaining funding for public services
  • Contact your county commissioners or officers and ask about forming a county-wide system for providing fire and other services
  • Check your insurance policy. Anyone who owns property anywhere should check their homeowner's insurance at least once a year to make sure it covers all costs of replacement and repair in case of a fire or some other disaster

Stories like Cranick's are tragic and shock the senses. They do, however, reflect the economic realities faced by local governments all across the US. With a little more planning, communication, and responsibility-taking, such tragedies can be avoided in the future.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What might happen if fire fighters respond to an emergency but the homeowner refuses to pay a bill for those services?
  • Are public service subscription fees tax deductible?
  • Can a landlord require a tenant to pay a public service subscription fee? Can she pay it herself and ask for reimbursement from the tenant?

Tagged as: Government, public services fees, government lawyer