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When government services go a la carte

A home fire in a rural Tennessee county late last month has ignited a national debate about how government services should be funded. The debate is particularly relevant here in Florida, where some local governments squeezed for cash are quietly weighing the idea of making residents pay subscription fees for services once fully paid by tax dollars.

The Tennessee fire shows where that approach could lead.

Obion County in western Tennessee doesn't have a fire department. County residents who want fire protection must pay a subscription fee to one of the eight towns in the county.

Obion resident Gene Cranick lived near the small town of South Fulton and in the past had paid its $75 annual subscription fee for fire service. This year, he didn't pay .

On Sept. 29 his grandson lost control of a trash fire outside Cranick's mobile home and the home ignited. The South Fulton Fire Department didn't respond to the 911 call because Cranick hadn't paid the fire fee. Firefighters did show up to protect the property of Cranick's next-door neighbor, who was a subscriber, but the firefighters were forbidden to fight Cranick's fire. Cranick lost everything, including four pets that died in the fire.

The incident has aroused strong emotions. Cranick's adult son punched the fire chief later that day and was arrested. Cranick has made numerous appearances on cable news shows, claiming that he "forgot" to pay the fee this year and thought the fire department would bill him if he had a fire.

South Fulton officials have defended themselves, saying the subscription fee has been in place for 20 years and subscribers who don't remit their fee each July are reminded by mail and a phone call. The mayor said if they allowed people to pay the fee only after they had a fire, soon no one would be paying the fee. He's probably right about that.

This pay-to-spray policy has been a hot topic among firefighters and cable news commentators. While some have condemned local governments that would offer public safety services by subscription only and watch a nonsubscriber's home burn down, others have said Cranick was the irresponsible one, failing to pay the fee and relying on government to save him from himself.

This issue is not so distant from Pinellas County. Mike Cooksey, the county's fire coordinator, remembers when there was a decal on the window of his childhood home in Kenneth City — visible proof to firefighters that his family had paid the subscription fire fee required in those days. Others who have been around awhile may recall that Pinellas voters approved countywide EMS service after Pinellas Park city paramedics were not allowed to treat a teenager hit by a car just beyond the city limits. The teen died on the road.

Today, fire service is provided to Pinellas County residents by a network of 18 city and independent fire districts. In all but one case, residents pay a property tax for the service. The one exception is the Pinellas Suncoast Fire District, where residents are charged a $260 annual assessment. But unlike in Obion County, the fee is collected through their property tax bill.

Communities throughout Florida charge such assessments to cover part or all of the costs of fire service. As property values, and therefore property tax collections, have been falling during the recession, some communities have been raising the assessments or implementing assessments for the first time.

Pinellas residents likely have noticed that they are being charged more fees, or higher fees, for a variety of city and county services these days. Go to a park or boat dock, and you may have to shell out a fee to park. Sign up for a class at a recreation or community center, and you may have to pay the instructor's full fee. Need a building inspection or a tree-cutting permit? It will cost you. Water rate going up? That's because you are being charged the full cost of producing that water.

But there are some government services that Pinellas residents probably expect to be fully covered by their property taxes, especially fire and police services. Shouldn't a government at least be able to do that?

Yet with property tax collections falling and the same number of properties to be protected, fire and police officials wonder where the money will come from to pay the costs. Fee-based public safety services may seem like a foreign concept now, but officials point out they would at least offer a stable financial lifeline to public safety departments.

Diane Steinle can be reached at dsteinle@sptimes.com.

When government services go a la carte 10/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 9, 2010 3:01pm]

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