Sunday, January 16, 2011

Of Fire, Taxes, and the Ethics of Paying for Services

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Wildland firefighting finds itself among the many cuts proposed by Governor Brown, which should leave many living in SRA's (State Responsibility Areas) wondering if they should have supported the 2008 bill creating funding for just such an endeavor.

The idea of the 2008 bill was to create a fee system for people living in SRA's, those places for whom the state is responsible for fire protection, since right now, their fire protection comes from the general fund.  The bill failed passage, however, which means that Californians outside the SRA's must pay for their own fire protection from local taxes plus fire protection for folks living within the SRA's. 

The purpose of the fee was to pay for the state's fire protection, but it also came with incentives for reducing the potential for damage from fires, lowering the fee if the owner had a steel roof, for example, or had properly cleared around the home.  Enough could be done on a property, in fact, to eliminate the fee for individuals.  However, many opposed this legislation when it was proposed, especially people living in SRA's. 

If a person has spent enough time believing themselves entitled to services for little or no charge, it is difficult to then believe, when the bill comes due, that they should be the ones to pay it.  But, when hard times come, these are the types of services that get axed.

Firefighting has always been one of those sticky places in the ethical gray area around government intervention.  Fighting fires is a service to private property owners, it is not a "public good" by the economic definition (nonrivalrous and nonexcludable).  However, the devastation wrought by fires, and their potential to quickly become uncontrollable and threaten others' homes, in addition to the sense of community, honor and courage that we have built around fighting fires, has made it a public service. 

This is why, when firefighters let a fire burn somebody's house down, even if they didn't pay their fee, many of us are outraged, and many are torn.  Letting the fire burn is a perfectly libertarian thing to do, but ours is not a perfectly libertarian country, for this very reason.  It just doesn't seem right to let a person's house burn down, because we know it isn't (yeah, that's a near-tautology there, sue me, it's still true).  Yet, as a country that tries to let our services be paid by those who use them, there is still a sense that people should be responsible for paying.

One might think that those people who find themselves closer to a libertarian ethos would be more comfortable with a fee structure for people living within SRA's.  One would be wrong:  In fact, those who lean more strongly libertarian in our current political atmosphere were also the most vociferous opponents to a service fee for California's SRA's. 

It's loss, coupled with the new proposed cuts, will hit California's rural counties hardest.  The fact that California has some of the lowest property taxes in the nation, and tries to make up for it with some of the highest sales taxes, means that rural counties have an even harder time paying for services such as fire protection.

California finds itself in a financial bind.  Technically, it isn't in as bad shape as some - it doesn't have as high a debt-to-income ratio as some other states, there is no concern about defaulting on its bonds, and its economy is still well over one trillion dollars, making it the 10th largest economy on Earth - but the political fallout from a $28 billion debt is troubling for many, even during a recession, when governments should be deficit spending somewhat.  What should California cut?

Our new Governor is proposing a sweeping set of cuts, in addition to asking voters to extend temporary tax increases. 

The ethical question, then:  Who should pay for fire protection?  Should it be those who receive the service?  Or, should it be equally spread among all Californians?  If the former, then how do we find that funding?  If the latter, then will we be willing to make it fair, and have the state make payments for all firefighting throughout the state, both within and outside SRA's?  Our current system, demanding that all Californians pay an equal share to fight fires within SRA's, while exempting those living in SRA's from having to help pay for other Californians', is blatantly unfair.

During times like these, when people are angry about the state of our state's funding, those same people should be willing to step up and pay for services they receive, or else expect that they will no longer receive those services.

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