Wait, A Second Hospital Tax?

For years a Virginia business policy group, the Thomas Jefferson Institute, has been pushing a Virginia tax reform proposal that would impose the sales and use tax on services.  The sales and use tax covers tangible goods, not (with a few exceptions) services.   Looking at the group’s 2015 report on the idea, imposing the sales tax on the broad medical and nursing home industries could generate close to $2 billion per year.

My memory went back to this idea while reading in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this morning that the hospital industry is indeed pushing again for a second “provider assessment” (read:  hospital tax) as part of the ongoing budget debate over Medicaid expansion.   The House of Delegates has included one new tax on hospital revenue to provide the state share of the cost of expanding Medicaid, and the hospitals want to tack on a second tax to increase their reimbursement rate for services.

The idea resurfaced in the Senate staff presentation Monday and then Senate Finance Committee discussions Tuesday.  The committee’s work on the overdue budget has now gone sub rosa for a while so there is no indication this “has legs”, as they say at the Capitol.

The two taxes combined would approach $400 million in 2020. That would be one of the largest tax streams flowing into state coffers, almost half the annual take of the corporate income tax and comparable to the insurance premium and recordation taxes.  The House version of the first provider tax is in effect a sum sufficient provision, meaning the tax will adjust up automatically if required to cover the state’s share of expansion (and the federal share will be shrinking.)

The infusion of major new federal revenue from Medicaid expansion to the hospitals now providing uncompensated care to that population may make it possible for them to absorb any new tax.  In theory the rest of us will be covering for less of that uncompensated care.  And the Thomas Jefferson Institute also helpfully tracks Virginia hospital profits, which grew last year, giving reason to hope customer costs or insurance premiums won’t rise because of the new tax.  The hospitals can eat it, right?  Have any such assurances been made?

But if this is just like every other tax and eventually somebody, somehow has to pay it, why not spread the burden across the entire health care sector by ending the medical sales tax exemption?  The same 1.4 percent tax rate now being proposed might do the trick.  New Medicaid patients will be visiting doctors, out-patient clinics, nursing homes and pharmacies and sending tests to labs.  Many will be in managed care systems – and we want then taking that approach.  If reimbursement rates are to go up, will they go up only for hospitals?  Why should only private hospital revenues be taxed?

Or what if we just ended the non-profit status of so many medical facilities and practices and just taxed their property and profits like any other business?  What if we doubled Virginia’s famously low tobacco products taxes, raising another $170 million for dealing with the health-care consequences of that poisonous habit?

The “third rail” status of the whole idea among most Republicans – including most Republican legislators – has forced this discussion off a rational plane and into a perpetual posturing zone.   A serious tax policy discussion of how to pay for this and what the impact would be on customer costs might or might not end up with these “provider assessments” as the right choice, but there has been no debate.

It Works for Georgia, Why Not for Virginia?

North Carolina has Asheville… but Virginia has Abingdon.

When former New Yorker Marty Stefanelli and his wife moved from West Palm Beach, Fla. to Blue Ridge, Ga., they went from paying about $20,000 a year in real estate taxes to $3,000. The couple still maintains a residence in New York, where they pay about $30,000 a year in taxes, but Stefanelli plans to make Georgia their main residence within a few years. “I bought a pickup to fit in,” he quips.

Southern Appalachia is emerging as a growing retirement destination for northern transplants who find Florida too expensive, reports the Wall Street Journal today. The so-called “halfbacks,” who move to Florida and then halfway back north cite lower cost housing, lower taxes and lower cost of living.

Net migration to retirement destination Appalachian counties in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee has risen steadily from about 10,000 in 2011 to more than 46,000 in 2017, according to census data.

The trend appears to be gaining momentum as local developers and real estate agents build housing product geared to the halfback market, and as local businesses provide products and services suitable for more affluent retirees. The newcomers are generating new tax revenue, creating new business opportunities and supporting more jobs for locals. The response is not universally positive. Some locals complain that the immigrants are driving up the price of housing and bringing in their brusque, big-city mannerisms. But overall the impact seems mostly beneficial.

Bacon’s bottom line: Apparently, this mini-migration to Appalachia hasn’t reached Virginia. But there is no reason Southwest Virginia shouldn’t be able to cash in. The terrain is just as beautiful as it is in North Carolina, the property and taxes are just as inexpensive, and there are urban areas like Roanoke and Bristol-Kingsport where retirees can avail themselves of comprehensive medical care. Aside from supporting new jobs, affluent retirees would bolster the tax base of hard-pressed local governments and support quality-of-life amenities that the communities could not otherwise afford.

This is not traditional economic development, but traditional economic development doesn’t seem to be working very well. Someone should research this market to ascertain what it takes to lure some of these halfbacks to Virginia.

Pipeline Runs Afoul of Endangered Species

Atlantic Coast Pipeline foes won a significant legal victory yesterday when the Richmond-based U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a Fish and Wildlife Service Review of pipeline construction. Limits set by the federal agency for the protection of endangered species were “so indeterminate” that they rendered enforcement of the Endangered Species Act meaningless.

“This puts a stop to any work that could threaten rare and endangered species and that’s much of the pipeline route,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted D.J. Gerken, the Southern Environmental Law Center attorney who argued the case, as saying.

Dominion officials said they would push ahead with the project. “We will fully comply as required while we continue to construct the project,” said company spokesperson Jen Kostyniuk. “Although we disagree with the outcome of the court’s decisions, an are evaluating our options, we are committed to working with the agency to address the concerns raised by the court’s order.”

According to Gerken, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s review allowed for a “small percent” of endangered species to be killed during construction, but did not define what constituted a small percent. “A small percent would never get triggered because nobody knows what it is,” he said.

The project will cross the habitats of eight endangered or threatened species, including the Roanoke logperch, the Indiana and long-eared bats, the Madison Cave isopod, the rusty patched bumblebee, and the clubshell mussel.

Bacon’s bottom line: The ruling gives a moral victory to pipeline foes but I doubt it will be a significant blow to the project. Dominion Energy, the ACP’s managing partner, will argue with pipeline foes over how to define what constitutes a “small percent” of loss to the endangered species and what kind of protections are needed. The Fish and Wildlife Service will develop more specific criteria. Unless Dominion appeals the case, it will buckle under and spend whatever money it takes to comply. The company is so deeply committed to the project that it cannot afford to back out.

Update: Dominion issued a statement this morning: “”We remain confident in the project approvals and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will continue to move forward with construction as scheduled. This decision only impacts activities directly covered by the Incidental Take Statement in certain defined areas along the route. We will fully comply as required while we continue to construct the project. Although we disagree with the outcome of the court’s decision, and are evaluating our options, we are committed to working with the agency to address the concerns raised by the court’s order.”

Taking Another Look at Tolls on I-81

Interstate 81, which slices through western Virginia, is one of the most heavily trafficked highways in the Old Dominion. Nearly 12 million trucks travel the Interstate, accounting for 42% of all interstate truck traffic in the state and transporting more than $300 billion in goods per year. The tractor-trailers make other drivers miserable by hogging lanes as they pass one another on steep mountain inclines. Typically, trucks are involved in the 30 or so crashes a year that take six hours or longer to clear and generate miles-long backups.

Tractor-trailers have been a nagging headache for decades because the situation has defied an economically and politically viable remedy. There was serious talk some twenty years ago about imposing tolls to finance a multibillion-dollar upgrade from Winchester to Bristol, but the idea provoked fierce local resistance. The Virginia Department of Transportation opted instead for a less ambitious — and far less expensive — program of making spot improvements to alleviate the worst bottlenecks.

Now the talk of tolls is back. Legislation enacted this year orders the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to complete a study of tolling options by the end of 2018. The law restricts the parameters of the study, however, in a way that presupposes the outcome. The CTB, states SB 871, “shall not consider options that toll all users of Interstate 81” nor “commuters” but may consider “high occupancy toll lanes” and “tolls on heavy commercial vehicles.”

Reports the Bristol Herald Courier of the legislation:

“It is very specific in tolling either hot lanes, express lanes or a heavy commercial vehicle toll. The objective is to not toll commuters,” said Ben Mannell, VDOT’s deputy director of planning. “They’ve also asked us to look at minimizing the impact to heavy commercial vehicles, if we did have a tolling scenario.”

Part of the study will focus on the latest crash data, areas that have a high number of crashes, congestion, delays and the potential for operational improvements for incident response in case of a major crash, Mannell said.

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will hold a dozen public hearings this summer.

Bacon’s bottom line. Take note: Commuters (i.e. voters) are not to be inconvenienced. By exempting commuters from tolls, the legislation envisions co-opting I-81, which was built for inter-city and interstate traffic, for the purpose of local travel. Virginia seems destined to repeat the error that turned Interstates 95, 395, and 495 in the Washington metropolitan area into traffic hell-holes that disrupt the flow of interstate traffic up and down the Atlantic Coast.

Conceptually speaking, there are two reasons for worsening congestion and traffic accidents on I-81: increased interstate traffic (mostly trucks) and increased local traffic. Local commuter traffic on the interstate hasn’t gotten as bad as in Northern Virginia because the metropolitan areas along the route — Winchester, Harrisonburg, Staunton, Roanoke, Blacksburg, Bristol — have experienced much slower rates of population and economic growth. But the dynamics are the same: New commercial and residential development clusters around the interchanges and people come to treat I-81 like a local transportation artery. Over time the Interstate clogs up, and commuters come to resent all those annoying tractor-trailers.

There is no way to solve the congestion problem on I-81 without solving the land use problem in each locality. Localities must stop treating the Interstate as a local transportation corridor. Instead of widening I-81 and paying premium prices to build at Interstate-grade standards, VDOT needs to build parallel transportation corridors designed for local use at lower travel speeds and lower construction costs. Furthermore, localities must eliminate zoning barriers to higher-density, mixed-use development supporting travel patterns of fewer, shorter trips.

As for some of the ideas contemplated in the VDOT study… Singling out heavy commercial vehicles for tolls may make political sense — out-of-state truckers don’t vote in Virginia — but it violates the purpose of the interstate to create connective tissue between states and metros. However, it would be appropriate to increase user fees on trucks so they pay their proportionate share that their super-heavy loads cause on the highway.

Tolls are a useful tool for funding transportation improvements and rationing scarce highway capacity. But they cannot do the job alone. All vehicles must pay their proportionate share of interstate maintenance and operations, and proper land use/transportation planning must provide commuters with viable options for local travel. Let’s hope that the authors of the I-81 study understand these principles better than those who wrote the legislation.

Wonk Corner:  Briefing on Medicaid Expansion

You have to read the footnotes:  The state estimates that should Virginia approve an expansion of Medicaid to an additional 300,000 low income persons, about 60,000 people now covered by individual ACA plans will revert to Medicaid.

That snippet is buried in a presentation made yesterday to the Senate Finance Committee by its staff, which is a great introduction for the non-experts among us.   Whether and how to expand Medicaid is, of course, the main sticking point which has prevented adoption of a state budget.

And by agreeing to a new hospital tax to provide the state’s share of the cost of expansion, the House of Delegates was able to authorize more spending than the Senate in several other key areas of the budget – all politically popular with somebody, creating a minefield of sticking points.

The hospital tax actually will reduce by 40 percent the financial benefit of Medicaid expansion to many of the hospitals serving that population, and the staff report notes that some hospital leaders are pushing a higher tax in order to increase their fees for Medicaid services to 88 percent of their costs.

The staff’s short list of advantages and disadvantages to the hospital tax fails to even raise the possibility that one way or another ultimate costs to consumers will rise further.  This is a new tax, a tax on a service.  It will be imposed on private hospital revenue from all sources – private pay, Medicare, ACA plans, major insurance carriers or the myriad other choices consumers use.  The tax is not imposed on other providers who will treat these newly-covered patients.

The staff also went through a list of conditions and variations to the traditional Medicaid coverage that Virginia might consider to control costs.   The House of Delegates has opted for a work or job training requirement.  One other option is creating health savings accounts. Right, somebody working in a fast food restaurant has the cash flow to fund an HSA.  Please.

As you will note on slide 15, the Senate has voted to expand Medicaid as well, but with a very limited new caseload.  Majorities in both chambers are on record supporting benefits to people at 138 percent of the federal poverty level, up from 100 percent.

The expectation is that the Senate Finance committee will hash all this out this week and have something to present to the full Senate by May 22.  It is possible unofficial discussions on the final compromise are already going on between some of the leaders in both chambers, but no official conference committee can be named until the Senate actually acts on a full budget.

How to Degrade the Value of a High School Diploma in a Few Easy Steps

The Richmond Public School System reported an enrollment of 27,221 students this past fall. Of those, 7,234 had seven or more unexcused absences. Earlier this month, as I blogged here, the School Board suspended the absenteeism policy while the administration studied what to do. Now comes John Butcher with background and statistics showing how extraordinarily negligent the school system has been in policing its absenteeism policy.

First, let us pause to consider how endemic the problem is. Look at the chart above, which John compiled with data provided by the Clerk of the School Board. (See his presentation on Cranky’s blog.) The mind-bending statistic is not that more than 26% of the city’s students had seven or more unexcused absences — it’s that 2,125, or almost 8% had 20 or more unexcused absences, and 469 had 50 or more!

Now, let us consider how Code of Virginia requires districts to deal with absences:

  • Any absence: Notify parents; obtain explanation;
  • 5 absences: Attendance plan;
  • 6 absences: Conference with parents; and
  • 7 absences: Prosecute parents or file Child in Need of Services Supervision (CHINS) petition.

According to John’s data, the city undertook only 173 prosecutions and filed only 60 CHINS petitions in 2017. “That’s a 3.22% compliance with the law,” he writes. “Viewed otherwise, it’s a 96.8% rate of violation by our School Board.”

The 2017 data, by the way, is no aberration. It’s consistent with the record of non-compliance since 2012. As far as Butcher can tell, the state Board of Education has done nothing to enforce the law.

Perhaps the reality on the ground — absenteeism is so endemic — that school authorities feel too overwhelmed to grapple with the problem anything. If that’s the case, perhaps we should stop pretending that a Richmond high school degree is worth the paper it’s printed on. Richmond schools purport to graduate 76.6% of its students on time. Educators may think they are helping kids on the margin by keeping them in school, but diploma inflation erodes the value of the degree, thus hurting students who attended classes, completed the work and deserved to graduate. Compassion for one group victimizes the other.

Revenue Surge May Be Fake News

May 1 is the deadline for Virginia personal income tax returns, but more than 700 very high income Virginia taxpayers skipped the deadline.  As long as they have paid enough tax to cover their liability, they can wait as late as November 1 to file an actual return.

That is one the facts stressed by Virginia Finance Secretary Aubrey Layne today as he reported on Virginia’s potential $400+ million revenue surplus for the fiscal year which ends next month, with an audience full of legislators eager to find revenue to solve their problems.

Problems such as the hundreds of millions of dollars separating the House and Senate versions of the unresolved state budget, also due by the end of next month.   The decisions over Medicaid expansion account for most – but not all – of the differences.  And problems such as the state’s dangerously low revenue reserve, discussed further below.

Layne knows that the state is seeing a sudden surge in revenue, but most of it is coming from taxpayers who make quarterly payments – not the working folks who have dollars withheld from paychecks.  A few hundred high income individuals or couples could account for much of the surge but their payments may be only temporary.  Given the uncertainty over federal tax reform, many of them probably simply paid much larger amounts – and much of that money could be refunded in a few months once the rules are better understood.

It may depend on whether and how Virginia adjusts its tax code in response to the recent federal changes, as I discussed earlier.  Layne said today that if Virginia stands pat on the current rules with no changes, the windfall in revenue could be (still just an estimate) $300 to $500 million.  Nobody in the meeting – neither Layne nor any committee member – piped up with any promise to make things revenue neutral.   Layne did indicate the Northam Administration might not want to keep it all.

Layne’s presentation was first on the agenda as the Senate Finance Committee finally restarted the process of considering the House’s second version of the budget.  The co-chairs, Senators Thomas Norment and Emmett Hanger, stressed early and often that there is still time to get a budget done without doing harm to the operation or reputation of the state and its localities.  The full Senate is not set to return until May 22.

The Secretary’s less cheerful news included this:  Virginia remains one of 16 states which have not seen revenue (adjusted for inflation) return to their pre-recession peak.  Virginia was less than one percent off the peak as of the fourth quarter of 2017, and other states were worse, but that is still a sobering situation in the second longest financial recovery on record.   Layne lays much of the blame for the state’s excessive reliance on personal income taxes (70 percent) and the retail sales tax (18 percent) for the General Fund.   If you set aside the surge in non-withholding revenue, the other sources are slightly above the original estimates – but not to the point that it shows sustainable economic strength.

The state is closely following the Supreme Court’s South Dakota vs. Wayfair case over taxing internet sales, and Layne stated a decision in favor of South Dakota in late June could also produce $280 to $300 million for Virginia.  But the Supreme Court could also kick the issue back to Congress.

And once again he was sharing grim information about Virginia’s comparison with other AAA rated states.  See the chart below.  Virginia’s Constitution allows for a reserve of up to 15 percent of GF revenue but would like to muster 4 percent to calm the rating agencies.   Do not bet the rent money on that happening anytime soon.   Norment spent some of the meeting chastising the news media for feeding concerns about the health of the state’s bond rating, but the final few pages of Layne’s slide show (start on page 19) are all you need to see.

VCU Board Rubber Stamps 6.4% Tuition Hike

Virginia Commonwealth University admissions acceptance rate through the 2016-17 school year. Source: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Virginia Commonwealth University Board of Visitors will jack up its tuition and fees by $866 next year, an increase of 6.4%. The vote came Friday after a presentation VCU administration sparked no discussion, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Only one board member, former political science professor Robert D. Holsworth, cast a vote against the increase.

“This budget helps ensure that we will provide an exceptional educational experience while staying true to our mission of advancing student success and access,” President Michael Rao said in a statement.

The administration billed the increase as needed to provide a 3% merit-based raise for faculty and to raise adjunct salaries from $800 per credit hour to $1,000. VCU’s tuition increase was more than double that of the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, and barely exceeded by that of the College of William & Mary for incoming freshmen and transfers.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, what’s the excuse this time? VCU can’t blame the General Assembly. The legislature appears set to budget $15 million in General Fund support for tuition at VCU million in fiscal 2019, a 7.2% increase from the current fiscal year.

More prestigious institutions like UVa, Tech and W&M have the market power to increase tuition and suffer no loss in enrollment. They enjoy such strong demand that even if some students are priced out on the margins, there are plenty of other students willing to pay the higher price. The question I raised last year is how much pricing power VCU has, especially given its identity as an institution that caters to first-in-family college students who tend to be less affluent and find it more difficult to pay the tab. Can VCU continue to hike the cost of attendance without suffering a loss in enrollment?

After a 3.8% tuition hike last year, fall 2017 enrollment at VCU did decline slightly — from 24,199 in 2016 to 24,102 – about 97 students. That’s a negative direction, but the percentage is so small that it can be construed as within the normal range of variability. Still, that modest decline must be regarded in the light of a second statistic — the acceptance rate. While most colleges are getting more selective in whom they admit (because students tend to be applying to more colleges), VCU has been getting less selective. The blue and orange lines in the graph above show how the university has been accepting a higher percentage of students who have been applying in recent years.

Does that mean VCU is scraping the bottom of the barrel? Hard to say. Two years ago, VCU announced that it would no longer require with a high school GPA of 3.3 or higher to submit SAT scores. High school GPAs, the administration argued, were better predictors than SAT scores of college success. Forgive my skepticism. Against the backdrop of high school grade inflation and the wide variation in academic standards from institution to institution, some might find GPAs less than worthless.

No one or two data points can be viewed in isolation. One year’s data cannot be regarded as conclusive evidence of anything. But the data should raise questions.

And questions, according to the Times-Dispatch, are exactly what were absent at the VCU board meeting. The board rubber-stamped the administration’s proposal for the most important decision it makes all year. Rather than ask for the numbers, explore the implications of those numbers, and ask the administration to defend those numbers, the board did nothing. Which raises the question, why bother even having a Board of Visitors?

Caution, You Are Entering a No Free-Speech Zone

Bruce Kothman engaged in prohibited activity — reading out loud from the Bible.

When University of Virginia alumnus Bruce Kothman planted himself on the steps of the Rotunda last week and began reading from Isaiah 40, a university police officer ordered him to stop. He was violating rules promulgated by the university in the aftermath of the Nazi/Klan rally last year restricting the right of people “unaffiliated” with the university, which includes alumni, to speak on the grounds without properly obtaining permission from the administration.

Kothman, who is Jewish, was appalled by the United the Right rally last year, which included a torch-lit parade across the Lawn accompanied by chants of “Jews will not replace us.”

But he also worried about the freedom-of-speech implications of the new university rules. He decided to test them last week — and he lost, reports the Washington Post.

To the broader public, Kothman is a much more sympathetic character than Jason Kessler, an Alt-Right provocateur who organized the United the Right rally and has made it his business to get in the face of progressives, lefties, and Charlottesville city officials. While 99% of the population may find his behavior hateful and obnoxious, he hasn’t been convicted of breaking any laws. But when he began visiting the law school library to read up on his law — apparently, he’s the subject of civil litigation — a library employee tipped off local activists who then began harassing him. Kessler engaged in argumentation with them and posted on social media referring to the protesters as “stalkers” and “Alt-Left scumbags.”

The university then banned Kessler from the grounds, issuing the following statement by way of explanation:

The warning was issued due to multiple reports from students that Mr. Kessler threatened them, targeted them through cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment, and targeted them based on protected characteristics. Kessler also intentionally and purposefully misled officers of the University Police Department regarding the torchlight rally that he helped organize on Aug. 11. His conduct on Aug. 11 threatened the health and safety of members of the University community.

Given his role in the United the Right rally, it is totally understandable that the university would regard Kessler as a malign presence. But he was not looking for trouble when he visited the library. To the contrary, the protesters were the ones who precipitated the confrontation.

There seems to be a new logic taking hold in Virginia universities. When the presence of a non-leftist person or group causes campus leftists to get agitated and disruptive, the non-leftists are held responsible — and their activities are curtailed. (I have been informed that Virginia Tech is charging the Young Americans for Freedom and Turning Point, two conservative organizations, for the security costs of their speakers rather than disciplining the students who threaten to shut them down. But I have not confirmed the accuracy of this information.)

It’s not controversial to ban a reviled character like Kessler. But it’s a slippery slope when people like Bruce Kothman are prohibited from reading from the Old Testament out loud on the Rotunda steps. And the trend is all the most troubling when the restrictions are applied in such a way that members of protected groups can engage in harassing and disruptive behavior without suffering any consequences at all. I had hoped that Virginia institutions of higher education would prove resistant to the creeping totalitarianism on college campuses, but I’m not encouraged by what I see.

Which is a Greater Public Safety Issue: Fires or Pedestrian Fatalities?

Municipal governance, like life, is full of trade-offs. One would think that a Class 1 fire suppression rating from the Insurance Services Office would be an unalloyed blessing. After all, a Class 1 rating ranks a fire department in the top 1% in the nation, which translates directly into lower homeowners insurance rates for residents of that jurisdiction.

So, if you’re a resident of the City of Richmond, which has earned a Class 1 rating after years of effort, or of Henrico County, the first county government in North America to earn the top rating, it should be a source of pride as well as insurance savings to see the validation of your fire department’s professionalism.

“It’s a big win for the city,” spoke Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the city’s honor. “More than anything, this rating demonstrates reliability.”

But there is a downside. Fire chiefs in top-rated jurisdictions also tend to exercise inordinate political clout, an influence that extends to land use decisions. And fire chiefs have been enemies of the kind of compact, high-density development preferred by New Urbanists and other allies of the Smart Growth movement.

Fire chiefs like big, wide streets and rounded street corners that make it quick and easy for their firetrucks to navigate. That’s entirely understandable if your No.1 concern is fighting fires. But wide streets and rounded corners are antithetical to the principle of walkability — cars tend to drive faster, and people take longer crossing the streets, all of which subjects pedestrians to a higher risk of getting hit. This phenomenon is as true in Henrico County as it is anywhere. I well remember attending a design charette for the Tree Hill real estate development and hearing the frustration of the planners at the unwillingness of the Henrico fire chief to compromise on street widths.

That’s no abstract concern. National pedestrian deaths increased 27% from 2007 to 2017 — to 5,984, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration. By comparison, Americans who died in fires in 2015 numbered 2,560, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In other words, pedestrian deaths outnumbered fire fatalities by more than 2 to 1.

Ironically, thanks to building codes influenced by fire chiefs, newly constructed houses are far more fire resistant than old houses. They use better materials, they have smoke alarms, and many come with sprinklers. If fires do ignite, they are slower to spread and do less damage. Fire departments don’t need the huge, street-hogging monster rigs to put out the flames. Pedestrian safety may well be a more pressing threat to public safety. Fire chiefs should not be given veto power over community design.