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Emergency services should be available to everyone

The Lake Wales city commission is considering charging a “user fee” to people who are found at fault in traffic collisions. The fee would start at $154 for “simple” collisions and rise with the complexity of the accident, according to The Lakeland Ledger.

My gut reaction was that this is a fantastic idea. People at fault should have to pay all the associated costs – maybe it would make motorists more careful. Why should the rest of us pay for the irresponsible behavior of others? Then I got to thinking: Is it really such a good idea to make government services pay-per-use? The answer is no.

Imagine if fire departments began charging user fees. Your house catches on fire and firefighters come and put it out. Later you receive a bill for their services – that is, on top of what you already pay in taxes.

This is not a slippery-slope argument. According to The Ledger, “numerous fire departments now charge user fees and Polk County charges for ambulance service.”

This is a bad idea even if it means lowering taxes or preventing them from being raised. One of the principal missions of a government is the protection of its people. Protection is such a fundamental government function some claim it should be the only one. This does not only mean protection from foreign threats. When citizens can’t count on their government to help them when their house is on fire, the government is not fulfilling its obligation to their citizens.

When essential services become pay-to-use, the potential for people to be without services becomes too high.

With policies such as these, a time may come when people will require fire or ambulance services for which they will not be able to pay. In this situation, one only has two choices: don’t call and risk the consequences, or call knowing you won’t be able to pay.

There are situations when people overreact and call for unneeded emergency services. When people have to think twice about calling because they are directly paying the cost, wasteful, unneeded calls will be reduced. But this decision is out of place in a true emergency situation.

The odds are high some people will wait too long before calling for emergency services. Small, manageable fires will become large, out-of-control blazes because citizens fearing the consequences of nonpayment will try to handle the situation themselves before calling professionals. A poor person with chest pains may wait for them to pass instead of calling for paramedics.

What happens when you call knowing you can’t pay? Sure, emergency service will come the first time, but non-payers could be at risk. While there are no municipalities with a “no-pay, no-show” policy as of yet, it is not a great stretch of the imagination to believe people who have failed to pay for an emergency service on a previous call might be denied services or priority.

This is not far-fetched. Some studies already suggest 911 response times are slower in poor, urban areas. A pay-per-use policy would merely exacerbate that problem, with emergency responders prioritizing neighborhoods based on their ability to pay for services. If you live in an area that gains a reputation for being delinquent, service to your neighborhood may become slow or nonexistent.

What if other government services become pay-per-use? Don’t have children? You don’t have to pay any taxes for schools. Hopefully, it would never get to this point. After all, an educated populace benefits everyone, regardless of whether you have children.

Being able to rely on emergency services is the same way. Everyone benefits from the peace of mind that comes from knowing help will be there when they need it. When people no longer feel they can rely on their government for protection, unrest and chaos is sure to develop.

Trying to reduce the cost of government is an admirable goal, as long as it is not at the expense of the poorest citizens. The idea of taxes is to spread the burden around to everyone – ideally by their ability to pay.

Josh Corban is a senior majoring in anthropology.