New fee may drain firefighting budget

New fee may drain firefighting budget

08 August 2011

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USA — A California law that imposes an annual wildfire fee on rural residents may have an unintended consequence—sapping the state fire agency of money it needs to fight wildland blazes, officials said Wednesday.

Concerns about the $150-a-year fee, which is contained in the state budget Gov. Jerry Brown signed earlier this summer, were raised Wednesday by the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Democrats in the Legislature passed the fee and said it eventually would raise $200 million a year. That would allow the state to transfer an equal amount of money from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to the general fund budget.

Under the law, proceeds from the fee must go to local fire-prevention efforts through local fire districts, fire councils or the California Conservation Corps—not the state fire department.

George Gentry, chief operating officer of the Board of Forestry, told The Associated Press that will leave the department with a hole in its firefighting budget this year.

“Obviously, that is a huge question,” Gentry told the AP in a telephone interview after the board meeting. “I’m not really sure how that $50 million budget cut will be addressed in all of this.”

The fee was intended to raise $50 million in the current fiscal year and $200 million a year afterward.

Brown raised the possibility of problems when he signed the bill into law last month, saying lawmakers need to make some changes. At the time, administration officials said the key problem was that the bill requires the fee revenue to be used for creating defensible space around homes instead of actually fighting fires.

Many local fire districts already have their own fire-prevention programs.

Gentry and Brown spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford said they are unaware of any attempts so far to amend the law.

“We intend to comply with what the Legislature asked us to do,” Gentry said. “If the governor does come up with some sort of legislation, we can always repeal the regulation.”

The Board of Forestry directed Gentry to begin drafting emergency regulations to begin the collections starting Jan. 1. Those regulations will stand for 180 days, until the board can adopt permanent rules.

South Lake Tahoe resident Robert Karkheck would be among those paying the fee, which he said is a reasonable cost of living in one of the world’s most scenic and cherished areas. The retired Air Force veteran’s home was one of 254 destroyed by a wind-driven fire four years ago that cost $140 million in property damage and torched 3,100 acres.

“I don’t like it if they’re going to take money away from the fire people. I should think it would be the other way around,” Karkheck said in a telephone interview.

A leading critic of the rural fire tax, state Sen. Ted Gaines, whose district includes South Lake Tahoe, said the revelation that the state’s firefighting effort could be harmed is another reason to repeal the law. The Republican from the Sacramento suburb of Roseville has begun an effort to place a referendum on next year’s ballot seeking to do just that.

Gaines and other Republicans say the tax is illegal because Democrats passed it on a simple majority vote, rather than the two-thirds legislative vote needed for tax increases.

“You’ve also got this issue of double taxation when you’ve got homeowners paying for fire protection at a local and state level,” he said in a telephone interview.

The firefighting fee affects about 850,000 properties statewide, many of which are in districts represented by Republican lawmakers.

Gentry disagreed with the opinion that the new fee represents double taxation because lawmakers earmarked the fee for fire prevention, while local fire districts primarily provide protection.

Nonetheless, he said the board also is considering whether the $150 fee can be reduced in areas where fire districts also do a lot of prevention work, such as thinning overgrown forests or brush.

The law also might face a legal challenge from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The association’s president, Jon Coupal, previously said the fee needed to be enacted with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and improperly imposed on local governments’ jurisdiction.

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