USA — San Bernardino County Supervisor Neil Derry is in a furor over a $150 state-imposed fire fee on rural property owners that is nearly double what was initially proposed in August.
Derry called the fee an act of “outright thievery” by Gov. Jerry Brown. The state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection approved the fee on a 6-2 vote on Nov. 10.
Derry is adamant that the fee is actually a tax in disguise. He says it is a mechanism to generate as much revenue for the state as possible without providing any services to taxpayers in return.
“This supposed fee is not based on anything other than filling the $50 million gap in Cal Fire’s budget,” Derry said. “They don’t provide any of the fire-prevention services they claim this fee is for. The county does.”
The fee could generate up to $88 million in revenue for Cal Fire and is expected to pull in roughly $50 million in its first year. That revenue will help provide a stable funding source for a portion of Cal Fire’s budget that is used for fire-prevention services, Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said.
Cal Fire is tasked with protecting 31 million acres of California’s privately-owned wildlands. State law allows the imposition of fire-service fees on people who own property on lands protected by the agency. The rationale is that those property owners receive a disproportionately larger benefit from Cal Fire’s services than other taxpaying citizens.
But opponents of the fee argue that property owners will be ponying up more than $100 annually to the state and getting no additional services in return.
“You’ll see nothing change in my district with the fee, other than the people will pay the fee and it will go straight to Sacramento,” said Mike Sherman, the chief of the Crest Forest Fire Protection District in Crestline. “All that money heads to Sacramento and disappears into the big, bloated government.”
In August, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution calling for the Legislature to rescind the proposed fee, which at the time would affect roughly 100,000 property owners in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. At the time, the forestry board agreed to limit the fee to $90 for residents living in extremely fire-prone areas and $45 for residents who already pay fees to fire and community service districts.
But Brown continued to push for the higher fee. In September, the Legislature thwarted his attempt to pass a $175 fee. So in October, Brown appointed four new members to the nine- member forestry board, all Democrats.
“When the board significantly limited the size and scope of the tax in August, Gov. Brown subsequently appointed four handpicked members to guarantee support of his illegal tax,” Derry said in a news release.
Under the new fee schedule, property owners living within a fire district will receive a $35 discount. But the fee also now applies to nonresidential properties, including government buildings, museums, libraries, hospitals and jails.
Derry said that is the only good thing to come of the new fee plan because local governments now can sue the state directly instead of waiting for homeowners or watchdog groups to take action. He said 22 fire stations in the county will have to pay the fee, which he called “preposterous.”
He said he will call on his fellow supervisors and constituents to take legal action when the first bill comes in the mail.
“As soon as we get our first bill from the state of California, I will be asking the board to join the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and numerous constituents throughout the county in litigation against the state,” Derry said.