From covering costs to gouging
Here’s a question worth pondering: When should government charge a fee for a service? The answer, of course, depends on how you define “service.” If the service truly is a service, and if only a select segment of the population has any use for the service, it may make some sense for government to charge a fee. The trouble is this: Fees easily become a vital source of revenue for the agency collecting them, and agencies can always think of good reasons to increase them. And since agencies can raise many fees without legislative approval, there is often nothing to stand in the way of agencies addicting themselves to fee revenue. (It’s an especially critical problem in South Carolina, where state government relies heavily on fine and fee revenue.)
At first the fee is intended to offset the costs of the service, but soon the fees are exponentially greater than the service. Anyone paying tuition and fees at one of our state colleges and universities will know exactly what we mean.
The following emails, received last week, make the points nicely.
Why don’t you guys at The Nerve do something on the fees? I know you’ve already done stuff on the outrageous costs of business license fees (hey, Mr. and Mrs. Small Business, you’re not doing anything but creating economic activity, but we’re going to charge you a fee anyway!). What I’m thinking of though is something on the fees the state charges to get into state parks.
Some are free, some cost $2 for adults. But some are absolutely outrageous. We took our family to Hampton Plantation a while back, and to get into the house there it cost us $29 ($7.50 for adults, $3.50 for kids). Another time we went to Myrtle Beach State Park, and it cost us $27.
Don’t these parks get state money? Or maybe they spend it all on “tourism marketing”? And parks aren’t services – they’re natural monuments that belong to all of us. What’s the deal with them charging exorbitant rates for the people who own them to enjoy them?
And then, concentrating on federal fees, there was this one:
We recently took our family to get passports. We have three kids, and my husband and I had to get new passports because our old ones were expired. I thought it might cost a hundred dollars or so. It cost $668. First you have to get them to take your picture. They charge $15 a pop to snap your picture and print it off. Then you pass for the passports themselves – around $100 each. Then, then we wanted to pay by debit card – CASH! – they charged us some kind of “money order fee.”
Maybe we should pay a fee for passports, I don’t know. But they are gouging people.
And that’s exactly the trouble with fees. They move from covering costs to gouging very quickly.