We have previously documented how Kasich’s budget has put the squeeze on local government – and especially on public safety and law enforcement.
Sycamore Township in Southwest Ohio has come up with a novel idea – privatize public safety.
Township trustees are considering the unique step of using a private firm to provide fire and EMS services. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, this is directly due to a $3.6 million decrease in funding from the local government fund.
We especially liked this quote from the news reports: “‘This fire department has saved my father’s life twice,’ said Greg Poe, 54. ‘You can’t put a price on a person’s life.’”
Like most things, it reminded us of a Simpson’s quote.
SALESMAN: But surely, you can’t put a price on your family’s lives?
HOMER: I wouldn’t have thought so either, but here we are.
(For those wondering, it is episode 5F01 from 1994 – the epsiode where Homer purchases a handgun to protect the family).
The Firefighters Union has offered significant cost savings to try to avoid this step. Our concern is that other local governments may try to pursue this action not just to save a few dollars, but because of an ideological view that the private sector can always do things better than the public sector.
We wonder whether the projected cost savings includes the additional costs to local government for monitoring the performance of the private providers. And do the contracts consider what will happen if a private company goes bankrupt or simply decides not to honor its contract?
The problem with this approach is the police, EMS, and fire services are not supposed to be profitable. By looking to save money, local officials will put public safety at risk. Profit-seeking corporations will have incentives to cut corners not only on personnel costs – driving the most experienced firefighters and EMTs out of the business – but also on equipment and response time.
One of the biggest issues is that private safety personnel don’t work for the citizens of the community, they work for whicheve private company hires them. Especially when it comes to private police, basic protections of civil rights and the Fourth Amendment may not apply. Moreover, private corporations, and not citizens, will be setting the priorities and standards for public safety. That means that profit – not the public welfare – will be driving decisions like staffing and equipment purchases.
Our view is that, in the long run, privatization will lead to decreased levels of service and increased costs. This is because private companies will be able to provide the same level of services at a cheaper price only by cutting wages and benefits for first responders. The likely profit-maximizing strategy will be to make initial offers of services at low prices to establish a monopoly with high barriers to entry in a particular area, and then raise prices after a few years.
A bigger problem could be in the standards applied for training. It is unclear what type of training private fire services will have to provide.
The bottom line is easy to see. Every day, first responders heroically face potential danger motivated by the desire to serve and protect their community. You can’t put a price on that. We wonder: would those men and women be required to act differently if they worked for a private company that was motivated only by profit?
Here we are.