Burning Down the House

Posted Oct. 13, 2010, at 7:11 p.m.

Just how far can the “pay to play” concept be taken? Ask Paulette and Gene Cranick. Firefighters from South Fulton City, Tenn., stood and watched the couple’s house burn to the ground because the Cranicks had not paid an annual $75 fire service subscription fee, required for fire department response outside city limits.

Increasingly, the “taxed enough already” segment of the population doesn’t want to pay for services that don’t directly benefit them. It has begun with a backlash against the public funds that go for assistance to the poor. It could soon spread to opposition to paying for health care for those who are overweight, who smoke cigarettes or who engage in other unhealthy behavior. Taken to its extreme, the impulse could mean that those who don’t have children in the public school system will balk at paying school taxes. Or those who have private retirement plans will refuse to pay Social Security for the elderly.

The sad fate of the Cranicks, who watched their house burn, is an appalling example of policies that take a tough love approach to public services.

According to news reports, the Cranicks were away from the house when their 21-year-old grandson, who was living with them, started a fire in the burn barrel. The nearby shed caught fire, then the house. When the man called the city’s emergency dispatcher, he was told the department would not extinguish the blaze because the fee had not been paid. The department responded to the scene only because a neighbor who had paid the fee called, concerned that the fire would spread. Neighbors offered the firefighters thousands of dollars to put out the fire at the Cranicks’ house, but they refused. In addition to losing their house, the Cranicks’ three dogs and cat perished.

The Cranicks said they had forgotten to pay the fee.

Opinions in the small town — about the size of Bangor — range from outrage that the city would let the house burn to sympathy for the city’s decision.

The idea that a social contract — a tacit agreement that we all will support certain laws and institutions because they ultimately, if not immediately, benefit all — undergirds our towns, cities, states and nation. In the zeal to shrink government and cut taxes, a moral obligation and enlightened self-interest must still hold sway.

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