USA — About 25,000 housing units in Calaveras County fall in the State Responsibility Area and residents may have to pay a $150 fee to fund Cal Fires efforts to protect state resources.
Cal Fire is responsible for protecting 31 million acres, about one-third of the state; 500,000 of those are in Calaveras County.
Typically those are more rural areas that have some type of environmental value to the state, such as timber, forest land or watershed, according to Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire spokesperson.
Jim Carroll, West Point Fire Protection District chief, said that people in his district would probably be extremely unhappy if the fee goes through.
Its not really going to benefit us in terms of fire protection, he said. My personal opinion is that this is a method to balance the (state) budget.
When asked if it was fair for more than 850,000 rural property owners to pay for the protection of resources that benefit out-of-area stakeholders, Berlant said that was a popular argument against the fee.
Youd have to talk to the other side. That is a common argument from the other side.
Berlant emphasized that Cal Fire does not take a position for or against the fee.
We work for the governor. Our job is to implement the law.
The controversy began in July, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill authorizing a new fire prevention fee of up to $150 for housing units in the SRA, the state responsibility area.
In August, the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection capped the fee at $90. Most residents within the SRA would qualify for exemptions, which would lower the fee to $25.
Brown had pushed to pass the higher fee in order to raise $50 million in new state revenue to help pay for Cal Fire to protect the millions of acres under its watch.
Berlant said that since January, Cal Fires funding has been slashed by $70 million.
The state is in a major fiscal crisis. In every department, cuts have been made. The revenue generated by this fee allows Cal Fire to operate as we have in the past. This fee will help prevent further cuts from being made to the departments budget. For us, were expecting about $50 million.
With a $90 fee, revenues would not reach the desired $50 million.
Between August and November, Brown made four new appointments to the state Board of Forestry, all Demo-crats, who then took a new vote on what the fee could be Nov. 9. The fee ceiling was raised back to $150 in a 6-2 vote.
After the vote, Brown dodged questions asking whether he had stacked the board to get his desired result.
There is a $35 discount for those who are within the boundaries of a local agency providing fire protection, which is actually about 90 percent of the state, Berlant said, which means that most people will be paying $115.
Many rural residents already pay fees for special fire protection districts, a local example being those living in the West Point Fire Protection District.
District voters overwhelmingly approved Measure A Nov. 8, which charges property owners an annual fee of $78.50 to fund a full-time fire department. Even with the $35 exemption, West Point residents within the SRA would be paying $193.50 in fees for fire protection annually.
The only consistent thing I heard was, I dont want to pay for Measure A if the state is going to charge us also, Carroll said. That was the only real opposition. People said, I dont want to pay twice up here.
Gary Smith, who works at West Point Lumber, said that most everybody hes talked to doesnt seem to like the new fee.
Its just another tax, he said. We dont have a say in it. Wheres it going to stop?
Berlant emphasized that nothing is finalized.
Its important to note that this is still the beginning of this process, he said. (The emergency regulation) is only in effect for 180 days. After that, the board will have to adopt a permanent regulation. That includes a 45-day public-notice period to give public comment. This is not over yet.
Sierra Pacific Industries, the largest landowner in Calaveras, and other similar companies have not been asked to contribute to this new fee.
The fee is per structure on parcels. To determine whether a property is within the impacted area, log on to bof.fire.ca.gov and click the State Responsibility Area Viewer link.