It may sound surprising in an era characterized by increasingly destructive wildfires, but Stephen Jellie just spent the past year trying to get rid of firefighters.
Jellie is the fire chief and city manager of Ogdensburg, N.Y., a town on the Canadian border that’s small and getting smaller—10,064 lived there in April 2020, down from 12,375 in 1980. The city kept raising taxes to try to save itself from financial distress, but costs were spiraling out of control. “We let it creep—we just kept putting resources into public safety,” he told me. “But you can’t run a city with just a fire department and a police department.” Ogdensburg isn’t unusual in cities and towns across the U.S.—even as the number of home fires has fallen significantly over the past few decades, spending on municipal fire departments has skyrocketed.