Tallahassee and surrounding areas in Leon County added a fire services fee to utility bills this year to account for a 50 percent increase in staffing and “a higher level in service,” according to a document on the Leon County website.
However, the implications of the fee, which is also paid in Tennessee, were thrust into the public eye in late September.
The Cranick family, after failing to pay their fire service fee, watched their home in Obion County, Tenn., burn to the ground as firefighters stood by. Homeowner Gene Cranick offered to pay whatever it took for the firefighters to help salvage his home, but was refused. Their only explanation was that it was too late.
The only reason firefighters responded in the first place was to make sure that the fire did not spread to neighbors’ homes whose fees had been paid, shocking members of the community with inhumanity, although the fee is clearly legal and binding.
The penalties for not paying such fees are far too great and demand a more creative solution to protect rural residents from threats of fire.
When explaining the fire service fee to residents, Leon County officials emphasized the county’s recent tax cuts and the positive effects of recently imposed budget changes. These documents, such as a letter received by all residents, are largely lacking in the harsh truths of what this fire fee will mean for those unable to pay.
Leon County documents note that the fees differ with proximity to fire stations along with other unknown factors. A base fee provided for reference ranges about $40 quarterly.
Near the very end of the county document, the most important question is answered, “What will happen if I do not pay
the fire services fee?”
The answer, seemingly diplomatic, has far greater implications than are apparent. Leon County suggests, “If the customer chooses not to pay this fee, which is part of the total utility bill, service will be disconnected for non-payment of the bill.”
To say that “service will be disconnected” is a non-confrontational way of saying that a firefighter may watch your house burn down.
It is understood that if firefighters simply put out fires for those who do not pay their fees, no one will elect to pay them. But this does not trump the baffling notion that a firefighter would be sent simply to watch a house burn but not to stop it.
This implemented fire service fee strays a long way from the days when firemen were volunteers and heroes willing to risk their lives to run into a burning building and turns a honorable profession into yet another business transaction. Fire service utility fees, though profitable, cannot be perceived as anything but unethical.
Adding fire services as a utility fee surely has stronger implications than a mere $40 charge. The fee hits deep, leaving morality to smolder in the ashes of the homes firefighters neglect to protect.
Tara Petzoldt is a sophomore majoring in mass communications.