USA — A rural fire fee that’s been panned across California as an “illegal tax” was reduced from $150 to $90 per home this week.
Several other temporary changes made on Monday by the state Forestry and Fire Protection Board could knock the annual levy down to $35 per home annually.
The revisions, however, did not appease critics across Riverside and San Diego counties, who continue to campaign against the fee.
The charge was passed by Democrats in the Legislature in July and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. State officials say the fee is needed to provide steady revenue for California’s costly wildland firefighting. It was one of many initiatives put forward to close the state’s $26.6 billion budget gap this summer.
“My feeling is it’s a tax. It’s an illegal imposition,” said Southwest Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone by phone on Tuesday. The supervisor said he was speaking from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
Stone added that the Riverside County Board of Supervisors has not formally opposed the fee, but may do so when it reconvenes in September.
San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price reacted Tuesday with skepticism to the fee changes.
“Although this is a lower tax, it is still a tax, and it is still double taxation for rural property owners,” said the supervisor, who represents areas from Encinitas to Escondido. “Furthermore, most San Diegans, including myself, do not trust that the state will actually use the money for fire prevention. How do we know that they won’t move the money into other programs or a budgetary black hole?”
State firefighting costs have fluctuated greatly in recent years, reaching $500 million or more in fiscal years 2007-08 and 2008-09, the result of a series of lightning-sparked fires across California. Costs dropped dramatically, however, to $95 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Last month, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, led by Slater-Price and East County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, spoke out against the fee.
In a letter to the state, the board labeled the fee “a desperate measure by the … Legislature and Governor to unfairly target rural property owners to make up for the State’s inability to balance its budget and adequately fund fire protection.”
In addition to lowering the fee this week, the state fire board decided that revenue generated by the fee should be returned to the regions it is drawn from on a proportional basis —- a move that Slater-Price has said she doubts will happen.
The temporary revisions made this week expire in 180 days. The state fire board is next charged with developing permanent policies for the fee, a process that requires public hearings.
Complicating matters, the revisions made this week by the fire board could be moot should the Legislature amend the law, as it is seeking to do, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire.
He said state lawmakers realized a flaw in the law that sends revenue only to local fire protection districts, not to CalFire. The state agency expected to receive up to $50 million from the fee this year to cover a $50 million reduction in state general fund payments to CalFire, Berlant said.
The agency’s approved budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year is $1.77 billion. That is down from the $1.89 billion spent on CalFire during the 2010-11 fiscal year and the $1.83 billion spent in the 2009-10 fiscal year, according to the California Department of Finance.
CalFire already has experienced $70 million in separate state funding cuts since January, Berlant said. Those cuts forced state engine staffing to drop from four fire personnel to three for huge swaths of the state’s backcountry.
Efforts are also under way to repeal the fee through a ballot initiative. State Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, who has led that effort, said by phone on Tuesday that he continues to collect thousands of the 500,000 signatures he needs to force a referendum.
Gaines said the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is considering a court challenge of the fee, something the state senator said he supports.
Should the revisions made this week survive, homeowners in some parts of the backcountry could pay less than the new $90 fee cap.
Fees for those who live in “moderate” and “high” fire-risk areas will pay a base charge of $70 annually. Fees for those who live in “very high” risk areas will start at $90.
In San Diego County, much of Valley Center and the communities along the I-15 corridor north of Escondido are labeled “very high” fire risk, according to state maps. Areas west of Ramona and near Fallbrook are considered “moderate” or “high” risk.
In Riverside County, unincorporated areas on the edges of Temecula and southwest of Lake Skinner are considered moderate risk. Large sections of backcountry north and east of the lake is high risk, the maps show.
Other fee reductions are possible should homeowners complete a CalFire defensible space inspection at their property. Property owners in overlapping state and local fire jurisdictions would also receive a fee reduction, according to CalFire.