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Homeowner’s House Burns as Firefighters Watch, All Because He Didn’t Pay a Fee

Homeowner’s House Burns as Firefighters Watch, All Because He Didn’t Pay a Fee

So just what does a world dominated by the ideology of those on the right who would cut taxes, starve government and transfer essential services into the hands of the private sector look like?  Well, it would look an awful lot like Obion County, Tennessee where a homeowner watched in horror as his home burnt to the ground all while firefighters stood by and watched.

You see, in Obion County residents must pay $75 if they want fire protection from the city of South Fulton.  If the homeowners don’t pay then, no matter what, they don’t get fire services.

The city’s policy has been in place since 1990 has been compared to that of an auto insurance policy by the Mayor and county commission.  The problem, of course, is that fire services are in no way an insurance policy.  An insurance policy doesn’t try to prevent or mitigate tragedies while they are in progress.  Instead, an insurance policy protects against loss and is valued by a very specific risk/benefit analysis.  Here homeowner’s are not asking the city to repay them for losses suffered due to tragedy but rather to provide the essential services that their tax dollars subsidize and that local municipalities, through their police power, agree to take on.

According to reports, firefighters would not respond to the fire until the blaze had reached the property of a neighbor who had paid the fee.  Of course, this raises all sorts of complicated legal questions, ones I’m sure city officials gave very little thought to.  Had a bystander been injured or died in the blaze because it was allowed to burn as long as it did, who then is at fault?  In this case the homeowner desperately tried to save his property, but all he had available was a garden hose.  Does that make him responsible for any loss to his neighbor’s property?  What if the reason he couldn’t pay the fee was because he was on a fixed income and just couldn’t afford it?  Then what happens and who bears that risk and shoulders that responsibility?

These are precisely the kinds of questions that those advocating for doing away with essential government services ignore, but they are precisely the kinds of questions that need to be addressed.  Government is not good at taking care of every problem, but there are some basic services like police, fire, sanitation and transportation  that it does well in part because it furthers our social contract–that is, the basic understanding that on some level we all are in this world together.  It’s an idea conservatives have drifted far away from.

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photo courtesy of Jay Adan via Flickr

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330 comments

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12:26PM PDT on Oct 24, 2010

This seems bizarre to me, not living in the USA, but I see there is some support for the idea frm Americans in the comments. I think my question would have to be... don't you pay taxes in order to receive emergency services? If not what are your taxes used for?

5:58PM PDT on Oct 23, 2010

Chris I agree with you. People dismiss their personal responsibilities and expect others to pay for them and I think that is sick. If people would simply accept the fact that EVERYTHING costs money they would see that while there are always crooked people the fact remains that expecting people to pay for the services they expect is perfectly reasonable.

However, I do believe that these firefighters were in the wrong by not going ahead and putting out the fire and then charging the homeowner the $75 PLUS some sort of late fee for being irresponsible about his obligations as part of the community and to the people who are putting their life at risk to fight the fires.

What I think is really funny about a lot of the comments is the fact that people are making it a Republican/Democrat issue and blaming the Republican party or party members, but the Mayor who backed this decision runs for the Democratic party..............

4:39PM PDT on Oct 21, 2010

I'm sorry to see that you all seem to disagree with each other. I wish you would keep in mind that there are no wrong opinions. Maybe you can't agree, but it would be nice if you could fit all your viewpoints together, take everything with a grain of salt and figure out what's true and what isn't. I don't like the idea of a Nanny State mentality either, but we don't know if that's what's going on. Firefighters just watching as a house burns down sounds terrible, but that's only one piece of the big picture.

We all look at reality through our own grids, or viewpoints. We think that some grids are better than others, but any grid is just as good as another one.

8:47PM PDT on Oct 19, 2010

I am sure if life was on the line - the professionals would be first to serve and save in spite of the irresponsible homeowner who "owns is own" perils - and not that of those under his (so-called) care. Granted, $75 is $75 - is $75. There must be more to the this story than is told. I can not believe pillars of community failing to save a house while in the neighborhood over a $75 debt to society. If one can not pay, donate time with the fire department, show appreciation by cooking a meal for them. Do not downright disvalue them. Too many deadbeats are to blame for this occurance to be an issue. Logic went out the window for both parties.

8:35PM PDT on Oct 19, 2010

Curiously might kill the cat, but, what legal means does the insurance company have to sue the fire department? Too many fingers in the cookie jar. Owner simply sues insurance carrier if insurance carrier determines not to pay - unless homeowner did not pay insurance either. Service providers are service providers, doctors do the same as do lawyers and pretty much any other entity. Churches do also. Money talks or service walk. Seems to me, the homeowner feels the firefighters should give equal time to his house while minimizing efforts on his neighbors house. Lesson to be learned - don't burn the fire department.

5:26AM PDT on Oct 11, 2010

@Reade H., well if they sue the city and the fire department they might as well sue me and you, none of us helped put out the fire. What part of not paying for a service and not receiving that service do you not understand? Why do you folks not go back and read the prior posts to this article and find that most of your "feelings" are not of consequence to this situation?

3:02PM PDT on Oct 9, 2010

well since the 75$ could have been recouped after the fact I would say this city has very poor judgement.

but I am also going to suggest that this fee is not high, if I lived in a area that required it, and I knew every year I had to pay it to get this service that I hoped I would never need.

I think I just might do without some non essentials so that I could cover it, or I would be down at city hall asking for a payment plan of some sorts.

we are talking 6.25$ a month here.

while I think this incident is sad, I think we have to ask individuals to pay their bills.

it is sad that this person lost their house, I wonder if they will own up to the their own part in this tragedy or place full blame on the city and firefighters.

5:13AM PDT on Oct 9, 2010

Fees are taxes it is a nice fairy tale that makes people feel better to call them another name. People don't like raising taxes, fine we call it a fee. So in order to register your car, we won't raise the excise tax, we just raise the "fees" to register your car. It is no less a tax than the excise tax. It still goes to the government. There are ways to avoid taxes just like there are ways to avoid fees. For instance if I choose not to own a car I don't have to pay the excise tax or the "fees" to register my car. So there is no distingtion between the choosing to pay or having to pay. Often taxes and fees are determined by choices you make. It is not a REPUBLICAN fiction, but a DEMOCRATIC fiction that there is any difference between a fee or a tax when charged by the government. They are just different ways to get money from the taxpayer. Like taxes some can be avoided by the choices you make, others cannot.

I have never forced you to respond, that is YOUR CHOICE.

As for this issue, you continue to ignore the point that this is about the Nanny State mentality eroding people's responsibilty to plan and act in this country. People know they need fire services. In fact in 1990 that is what established the MINIMAL coverage they had at all, acknowledging a need and tryign to solve a problem. Not the Nanny State mentality that if we sit back government will save us. Obviously government isn't saving them. It left them for generations without ANY fire coverage.

2:55AM PDT on Oct 9, 2010

chris no matter what you say and what your truth is, fees are not taxes........ taxes are taxes......... fees are fees, it is just fiction that the conservative republicans (and their tea people) are trying to make into fact. without calling it raising taxes. we are not that dumb! unfortunately from where you come from it costs people their home and their animal members of their family. and that is ok with you. so be it. im not reacting to you anymore because that is what you want and im not interested. we will never agree on this if i live to be a million years old.

10:17AM PDT on Oct 8, 2010

Firemen watch and do nothing as a house burns down.
Where is a sense of pride and community?
In most every town I've lived there was a proud volunteer fire department. This would never have happened. What is the pride level in that small town in Tennessee. How proud do those fireman feel today? How proud is the rest of the town that they let one of their neighbor's houses burn down? They need to spend a few mornings at Graham Elementary School in Newark California.


My two sons both attend Graham Elementary School in Newark CA . Every morning the principal Mr. Parenti asks the entire school to “do something today that makes you feel proud.” This is a powerful message he is trying to instill at his school, and one I think that has gotten lost in many communities these days. I have been listening to this for two years now, every morning, and finally it sunk in. The magnitude of what he is asking of his students, and all who are lucky enough to stay with their children for the 10 minute start of the day, is all encompassing. Pride instills self worth , self esteem , a sense of community and of doing what's right. Pride is a moral compass. We all should know what is morally right but when you are between the ages of 5 and 13 it can get confusing. The school celebrates doing the right thing when a few students are acknowledged for making the right choices every week. Whether it be by picking up a piece of trash in the school yard or helping another student with

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