Friday, March 18, 2011

Paying for water by the drink

If the rest of the world applied the city of Sun Valley's formula for paying for public emergency dispatch services, local residents and visitors would be paying for water by the drink.

Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich has insisted that Blaine County should charge the city only by the call for dispatch services instead of charging by the address. He has argued that as a resort town with more housing units than permanent residents the city generates few emergency calls and that charging by the address is unfair to taxpayers. Not to mention cheaper.

Willich has also argued vehemently that Sun Valley is unfairly charged twice for many services because property owners pay both county and city taxes.

His arguments have failed to sway officials in Blaine County, which runs the emergency dispatch system that serves the county and all the area's cities.

So the city has simply failed to budget enough money to pay its "by-the-address" fees and now has failed to pay its bill.

Imagine what would happen if the mayor's arguments prevailed.

Cities would charge residents and visitors for use of sewer systems "by the flush." They would charge drivers tolls to drive on local roads. Only resident families with kids would have to pay for schools, teachers and buses. Childless, retired or nonresident property owners would pay nothing.

Fees for service may be fine for funding government services whose benefits accrue solely to individuals or corporations. Fees for building permits are one example.

However, the fee-for-service model fails when it comes to providing funding for doing all the things that government can do that individuals can't do themselves.

The danger in fee-for-service funding methods was illustrated last year when firefighters watched as a home in rural Tennessee burned down because the homeowner had failed to pay a $75 surcharge for fire services.

Imagine the entire nation on a strict fee-for-service plan. Thousands of essential services and critical infrastructure simply wouldn't exist, or would exist only for use by individuals who paid directly.

Toll roads would dominate the nation, with no guarantee that toll companies would cooperate. Many children would be doomed to illiteracy because parents wouldn't be able to shoulder the costs of K-12 education. Easily controlled diseases periodically would lay waste to the population because vaccines would be available only to those who could pay.

The city of Sun Valley should face up to its public obligations, quit whining and pay up.

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