Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The limits of volunteerism

It is a common right-wing misconception that we could replace government run social service programs with private faith-based charities. I don’t believe this is realistic or practical.
But rather than trying to point out the obvious - that being the massive scale of the government’s resources and the vast need for them compared to the inadequate resources and infrastructure of private charities - not to mention their unwillingness to take on such a heavy burden.
Instead, I would like to relay an anecdote from my days as a reporter working for the Kerrville Daily Times in the early to mid-’90s. I was covering the Kerr County Commissioners Court back then when an issue arose involving the lack of funding for some of the area’s volunteer fire departments (VFDs).
Now Kerr County has got to be one of the most conservative places on Earth. There were no elected Democrats in any office and the county boasted the highest percentage of Republican voters in the state. And yet here was a group of people coming before the staunchly conservative commissioners court and demanding that they be allowed to set up a new taxing district.
It seems that the surrounding countryside was booming with new housing developments targeting wealthy retirees moving in from Houston and elsewhere. And the local VFDs just weren’t able to keep up with the pace. They needed new equipment. They needed more people. And most of all they needed to replace their old fire engine - a substantial investment.
Every year this particular VFD would hold fundraising drives and do whatever they could to raise the money they needed to do their work. They would go door to door collecting donations and every year it would be the same small group of people who would pony up the bulk of the funding. Now these very same generous people were standing before the commissioners saying they were tired of footing the bill for everyone else. They wanted to establish a taxing district that would require everyone to pay their fair share.
Needless to say, they got their wish. The commissioners conceded that the VFD formula was no longer sufficient, so they cast aside the Republican mantra of “No New Taxes” and set up a new taxing district. I’ll bet that tax is still being collected to this day.

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