Alibi V.28 No.21 • May 23-29, 2019 

On Assignment

The Commodified Emergency

City’s 2020 budget charges for emergency services

An Albuquerque Fireman and rescue equipment
An Albuquerque Fireman and rescue equipment

Many would argue that the main premise of progressive governance involves the implicit compact made between citizens and elected officials regarding the reach of government. For example, under the progressive model, citizens expect the government to provide services designed to build and sustain community without interfering with the liberty and and agency of law-abiding members of that same large group, the electorate.

Certain services, including but not limited to fire, rescue and police services, are paid for by taxes. Engagement of such services, often in an emergency, is generally seen as one of the benefits of living in a modern, civil society.

A system of budget preparation and enactment, tax elections, levies and general obligation bonds is built into the municipal governance system to ensure that services continue despite the economic fortunes of the municipalities that bear their sometimes tremendous weight.

This system has worked for generations here in Albuquerque but may be substantially altered if certain items in Mayor Keller’s proposed 2020 budget are enacted by the City Council in the upcoming days and weeks.

Specifically, the budget in consideration calls for an update to the city’s fire code ordinance. The update would institute charges for certain emergency services. Under the plan, citizens or their insurance company would be charged $400 by the city for hazardous waste mitigation, $1,305 for the use of heavy rescue tools and $400 per hour for additional time spent at a crime or rescue scene.

The money raised through this commodification of rescue services—about $1 million by city estimates—would be used to fund 12 additional firefighter positions at the Albuquerque Fire Department.

All of these details—except for the exposition on progressivism, that’s from us and directed toward interested citizens and politicos who’ve somehow forgotten the basics of their own platform—were made public when Keller and Co. published their proposed budget last month. The specifics regarding this proposal are elucidated beginning on page 110 of said document.

The plan to charge the insurance companies of those who need city emergency services recently came to light because of the serious reading efforts of members of the press, local advocacy groups and citizens. As a group and individually, they question the basis and efficacy of a plan that, to their sensibilities, violates a prime directive of progressivism.

The ironic thing is, those rancorous voices are coming from a Republican in the state legislature and a politically conservative blogger while rank and file members of the Democratic party have chosen to be silent about an issue that—on the surface—seems to violate their own raison d'être.

State Representative William R. Rehm (R-Bernalillo) reiterated a commonly held truth about governance—while sounding a bit like a member of the cast of Fargo, by the way—when he told the local daily this weekend, “The whole purpose of government is to take care of its citizens, and this is like ‘Oh, now we’re going to go ahead and bill you over here’. Jeez.”

Jeez indeed. The proposal even raised the hackles of former mayoral candidate and anti-progressive blogger Pete Dinelli. Dinelli told his readers on Monday that “Police and Fire protection are basic essential services that virtually every citizen in the city pays for with their taxes. The providing of an essential service, when it comes to police and fire protection, should be free of charge and such services should not be for profit, period. ... The Albuquerque Fire and Rescue Department (AFRD) billing a taxpayer’s auto insurance company when it is dispatched to the scene of a car crash or vehicle fires to raise $1 million to fund 12 firefighter positions borders on the grotesque on so many levels.”

Although our editorial board generally and as a matter of principle disagrees with much of what Dinelli writes—especially the vituperative, angry man brand of journalism that peaked with demise of ABQ Free Press—he has a solid point and so we’re dang sorry we thumbed our nose at him that one time in Ghetto Smith’s.

This newspaper is more than glad that Dinelli spoke his mind on this issue; it’s a flagrant violation of progressive values that smacks of the corporatization of an essential service that citizens have a right to, especially in emergency situations.

As the city council prepares to meet to hold budget hearings, we urge each councilor to look carefully at this proposal before allowing it to become part of day-to-day business here in Burque. Citizens should not have to pay for emergency services. If, as Keller told the local daily, “resources are incredibly drained and we’re trying to recover from a decade-long shortage of investments in first responders,” then a solution better than commodifying emergency responses—including raising taxes judiciously—must be found. That’s why we elected a progressive administration in this city in the first place.

News editor’s note: On Tuesday night, the City Council approved the Mayor’s budget with some amendments. The proposal discussed here was allowed to remain in the language of the legislation. We’re told that councilors will discuss the specifics and consequences of the revised fire code ordinance in a separate meeting.