Fire fee targets rural residents; service is already paid for, critics say

Fire fee targets rural residents; service is already paid for, critics say

30 June 2011

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USA — California — A plan to charge a yearly fire protection fee in unincorporated parts of the county likely would affect around 23,000 Shasta County households, though the county already pays millions each year to contract with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for fire services.

Assembly Bill X1 29, drafted by Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-San Fernando Valley, would charge those living within state responsibility areas a flat yearly fee of up to $150.

State responsibility areas are portions of the county Cal Fire is assigned to protect, whereas local responsibility areas are handled by city fire departments and federal land is protected by the United States Forest Service, said Daniel Berlant, an information officer with Cal Fire in Sacramento.

The bill, passed along party lines, is incorporated in Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget and was sent to his office for a signature late Wednesday.

Estimates based on the 2010 Census show 22,721 households on 1.36 million acres in Shasta County would likely be subject to the new fee, said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for Cal Fire in Sacramento. The State Board of Equalization would be in charge of assessing and collecting the fees, she said.

But property taxes from these areas already contribute to the $3.2 million Shasta County is paying Cal Fire this year for fire protection, said Julie Hope, an analyst with the County Administrative Office.

The same goes for Tehama County.

There, $2.7 million of the roughly $3.2 million paid for Cal Fire services comes from property taxes, said Kathy Peters, risk/fiscal manager.

“Property owners in the state responsibility areas are already paying to support both of those,” she said of volunteer fire departments overseen by Cal Fire and the county’s contract with Cal Fire.

And legislators haven’t specified whether areas within state responsibility that already have their own fire protection districts, such as Burney, will have to pay the fee on top of the additional charge they already pay for fire protection.

“There’s a lot of details to be worked out, including that one,” Upton said.

County Administrative Officer Larry Lees said he isn’t sure, either, how the bill would pan out if signed.

“The reality is, nobody is sure what it means yet,” he said. “Hopefully they’re not going to be double-billing anybody out there. I don’t think they can legally do that.”

There’s a lingering feud over whether the bill is legal. Democrats and Republicans are divided on whether it should be considered a tax or a fee, and the state’s constitution has different voting requirements for each. Proposition 26, passed in November, mandates that most new taxes need a two-thirds vote from both houses of the Legislature.

Republicans have argued that four of their votes would have been needed to approve the bill for it to meet Prop 26’s guidelines.

But if there is a direct link between the charge and what it pays for, such as with certain permits and licenses, only a majority vote is required.

Democrats contend there is a point-blank relationship between the fee and the fire protection it would provide.

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