Thousands of residents hit with new firefighting fee

Thousands of residents hit with new firefighting fee

23 August 2011

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USA — A new fee for firefighting services has received the state’s OK despite complaints about its financial burden to rural Californians.

The surcharge passed by forestry officials on Monday was less than previously announced, with many families qualifying for discounts.

The state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection unanimously approved a maximum $90 emergency fee on habitable buildings outside cities.

The levy was less than the $150 charge its supporters had sought, and a host of exceptions suggest revenue from the fee will fall far short of the $50 million originally predicted.

“It’s a difficult position to be in,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for CalFire. “The governor’s intention was to create stable funding for fire protection, and now we’re concerned this won’t generate that amount.”

About 7,000 Napa County homes are among some 850,000 located in so-called state responsibility areas protected by CalFire. The fee does not apply to dwellings inside the county’s five cities.

Backers have said the emergency fee is needed to pay for rural fire protection and medical services now subsidized by all state taxpayers. The state Legislature approved the plan as ABX 126, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill last month, requiring the forestry board to impose a fee by Sept. 1.

The fee will be in effect for up to 180 days, giving the board, CalFire and legislators time to draft a permanent annual fee. H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance, said Tuesday a bill could be ready next week for lawmakers to consider before their session ends Sept. 9.

While the revised fee theoretically could garner as much as $30 million for firefighting, various exemptions would slash the cost for many families, by as much as $65, officials said.

Homes outside areas CalFire considers the highest of three fire-risk levels would not be charged more than $70. Residences inside fire districts would receive a $45 discount, and homeowners can get further $10 breaks for receiving a state defensible-space inspection or living in a county with an approved fire-safety regulation.

However, the fee has drawn the ire of tax activists and others who call the idea an illegal tax on homeowners already paying into local fire protection districts.

State Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, filed paperwork this month to put a repeal on the June 2012 ballot. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association also has pledged a court challenge, arguing the fire protection fee requires the same two-thirds yes vote from lawmakers as is demanded for new taxes.

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