State considers charge for rural residents to pay for firefighting

State considers charge for rural residents to pay for firefighting

14 March 2010

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USA —  State officials looking for ways to increase funding for state firefighting efforts are debating whether to sock every homeowner in California with a surcharge on their insurance or whether to levy a special assessment only on property owners in so-called State Responsibility Areas.

The state Legislative Analyst’s Office this week came out in favor of the special-assessment solution. Such a charge could mean that owners of homes in the rolling ranchlands or forested canyons in places such as Calaveras County would be billed an extra $500 a year. The proposal already is drawing fire from groups that advocate on behalf of rural areas.

“We are strongly opposed to it,” said Paul A. Smith, senior legislative advocate for the Regional Council of Rural Counties. He said such an assessment would unfairly burden rural residents with the cost of fire protection when the benefits affect the entire state by protecting watersheds and forests. It also would undermine local fire agencies in rural areas, Smith said.

That’s because residents already paying hundreds of dollars to a state agency for wildland fire protection would be unlikely to also vote to tax themselves to support the local fire districts.

“If this fee goes in, it will kill local fire protection.”

The legislative analyst’s report argues, in contrast, that it is only fair for rural building owners to shoulder the increased costs those structures have imposed on the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as CAL FIRE.

The agency’s original mission was to protect wildlands, the report said, adding that “over time, however, there has been considerable ‘mission creep’ and the department now spends considerable time and resources protecting homes … from wildfire, as well as responding to medical emergencies and other nonwildfire calls.”

Portions of San Joaquin County and much of Calaveras County are within such State Responsibility Areas.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched the debate by proposing a 4.8 percent surcharge on the premium amount for insurance policies on homes and businesses across California. His plan would raise an estimated $238 million in 2010-11 and roughly $479 million a year thereafter.

Those funds would eliminate CAL FIRE from the state’s General Fund and allow for expansion of some state fire programs, such as hiring an additional 1,100 seasonal firefighters.

The legislative analyst said that such a surcharge is really a tax, and as such would not yield as much money as the governor projected because state law requires that a portion of taxes must be diverted to education.

The report did not offer a suggested amount for a fee on the owners of structures inside State Responsibility Areas. But if the $478.7 million the governor seeks annually through his surcharge were instead divided among the estimated 860,000 affected homes, the cost would come to $557 per home.

At least some Calaveras officials say they prefer the analyst’s suggestion.

“I think it is a horrible idea to put a tax on your insurance,” Calaveras County Supervisor Tom Tryon said. “I would much prefer the LAO’s proposal.”

Others said that rural property owners should not bear the cost of fire protection that benefits the entire state. “Firefighting is for the greater good,” said Mountain Ranch resident Bill Schmiett, a member of the Central Fire and Rescue Protection District board and a former firefighter.

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