So I'm talking to Joe Lowe, and he says to me, "I'll run government like a business."

I cringe. Oh no! Mayor Huether must have bitten him. Now I'll have to vote for Sue Wismer.

Joe sees the nervous look in my eye. He tells me a story.

When Lowe became the director of South Dakota's new Wildland Fire Division in 2001, he saw a way to turn the state's firefighting equipment and personnel into moneymakers. No, he didn't shake down homeowners near the Grizzly Gulch and Alabaugh fires. Lowe made the state's firefighting resources more available to other states and the feds. Why was this a good idea?

  1. First, the obvious: South Dakota firefighters helped their fellow firefighters across the country put out fires and save lives and property.
  2. Fighting fires out of state during South Dakota's low-fire-risk seasons helped our firefighters keep their skills up. Lowe and any other firefighter will tell you that practice is no substitute for experience. As Chief Lowe sent the crews out to more fires out of state, our guys got more live-fire experience in a wider variety of terrain and conditions. They came back stronger, smarter, better firefighters.
  3. Other states paid us 110% of the cost of our resources. In other words, Lowe improved our firefighters' readiness at zero cost to the state and put another 10% back into the general fund.

For a concrete example, consider the Wildland Fire Division's acquisition of a bulldozer in May 2005. The state authorized Lowe to purchase a used Kubota from a Rapid City company for $80,000. A bulldozer can cut a really big fire line. It's valuable equipment in itself. But under Lowe's management, lending that Kubota out to other states when it wasn't needed here brought another $40,000 back into the state coffers in its first year of service.

Dale Deuter ran that dozer for Lowe. He tells me Lowe created new opportunities for the state's firefighters. Deuter spent 35 days in Amarillo, Texas, in spring 2006 fighting wildfires. Deuter, the dozer, and his swamper went with fourteen other men and four fire engines as an initial attack crew, meaning they were the first responders to newly reported fires. They fought fires in open country, around oil fields, and even, on Easter Sunday, in the Amarillo city limits. Deuter said that experience made him a better firefighter.

Deuter also saw Lowe's expansion of out-state lending helping local volunteer fire departments. Prior to Lowe, out-state lending had included some West River volunteer fire departments. Lowe made a greater effort to engage East River fire departments. These volunteer fire departments improved their readiness just as state firefighters did in fighting out-state fires. But they also shared the profits. The payments from other states for their services helped volunteer departments upgrade their equipment, meaning folks across the state got better fire protection.

And that improved service happened because Joe Lowe thought like a businessman and turned his resources into a profit center.

Of course, unlike Huether, he charged his customers 10%, not 79.9%.

But there you go: Democrat Joe Lowe shows how running government like a business can mean not simply generating a little extra cash but also providing better service.