Rural residents protest new fire protection fee

Rural residents protest new fire protection fee

23 December 2011

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USA — Sacramento — Starting next year, hundreds of thousands of Californians, including tens of thousands of Bay Area property owners, will be hit with a new $150 fire prevention fee that critics say is unnecessary and illegal.

The fee applies to residential and other habitable structures in rural areas throughout the state, where 90 percent of property owners and residents already pay local taxes for fire protection services. The fee will generate new revenue for the state – tens of millions of dollars more than the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection currently budgets for fire prevention.

And in six counties, including Marin, Cal Fire provides no fire protection services and actually pays local governments because they are not there. Even so, residents in those counties will be charged the state fee. In Marin County, the owners of more than 16,000 structures will get billed.

“We are opposed to this fee, period. We think it’s unfair, especially for those areas where they’ve already approved a fire prevention type of fee,” said Karen Keene, a lobbyist for the California State Association of Counties, who added later, “It’s not going to result in any increase in fire protection. It’s just filling a budget hole.”

The fee was proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown and approved by the Legislature as part of this year’s budget deal. It set a fee of “no more than $150” for structures to pay for fire prevention efforts in what are known as “state responsibility areas” that cover about 31 million acres, or about a third of the state.

Cal Fire estimates there are more than 800,000 such structures on land where it provides fire service.

Urban areas, especially in Southern California, have been expanding into wildland areas, and the landscape creates a high risk for devastating wildfires. Fire prevention includes things like removing vegetation and brush to create a clear zone around structures.

‘Funding is vital’

Elizabeth Ashford, spokeswoman for Brown, said, “This funding is vital to support wildfire prevention efforts, arson investigations and other important Cal Fire programs. The Legislature included this fee in the current-year Cal Fire budget to support these activities. Over 800,000 homes and 31 million acres in California are protected by Cal Fire – we cannot weaken their efforts.”

In August, the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, which was charged with implementing the fee, set it at $90, with several exemptions that would make it lower. But the governor had directed the board to ensure that the fee generates a total of $50 million, so in November the board raised it to $150 to meet that threshold.

While the goal is to generate $50 million the first year and $80 million in subsequent years, Cal Fire currently budgets $23 million for fire prevention. Officials say the department actually spends more than that on fire prevention, but classifies the work under other categories. The department is shifting money in its budget to reflect what it says is spent on prevention, and that amount will easily hit the targets, said Janet Upton, deputy director of Cal Fire.

The fee was set for final approval this month, but officials at the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection withdrew the proposal to make changes in the definition of a habitable structure and to remove a stipulation that multiunit dwellings such as duplexes and apartment buildings would be charged once for the entire structure and not for individual units.

The forestry board will vote on those changes at its January meeting, then resubmit the plan to the state office that gives final approval to regulations. The proposal also includes a $35 discount for buildings that are in an area that already has local fire protection.

Complex assessment

George Gentry, the executive officer of the board that set the fee, said it was increased “to ensure that the budget would be addressed.” He said trying to administer the fee is a complex task and that some questions remain unanswered.

However, he did say the most recent changes “will solve a lot of the problem, I think. We’re removing a lot of things that were in that gray category.”

The rules are temporary, and the board will hold hearings to determine a permanent policy and address outstanding issues.

Some people, like Napa County resident John Hallman, are concerned the fee might make it harder to continue local fire protection efforts. For more than two decades, Hallman has lived in the rural Berryessa Estates neighborhood, which is made up of about 180 homes in a remote area north of Lake Berryessa. Thick brush around the neighborhood created the potential for a nightmarish wildfire, so Hallman and a handful of other residents sought grants and other funding to pay to remove the vegetation. Over the past few years, they’ve spent about $120,000 to hire crews to create a fire break 200 feet wide and 3 1/2 miles long to protect homes.

Hallman estimates that the fire break could be maintained with each household paying $25 per year, but he doubts residents would go for that on top of a state fee. There is no guarantee that the state fee will pay for maintenance of the break, and Hallman said he thinks it should be lower and that the state should show how the money is being used before asking for more.

“I’m not a government worker or politician, so I want the money to go for the absolute most benefit we can get,” he said.

The money will go into a fund from which the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection will award grants for prevention efforts.

For rural communities that fund their own fire protection, the state fee will make it more difficult to ask local voters to pay more, said Staci Heaton, lobbyist for the Regional Council of Rural Counties in Sacramento.

“When people get a bill from the state, we worry (they) aren’t going to be willing to tax themselves again. So if local fire districts need more revenue, they aren’t going to get it,” she said, noting that rural areas have higher unemployment rates and lower incomes than urban parts of the state.

On top of those concerns, taxpayer advocates say the fee is an illegal tax that they will challenge in court as soon as the first bill is sent. It’s not clear when the Board of Equalization will start issuing the bills.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, called the issue a “high priority,” and said the expense to property owners is not narrowly tailored enough to be called a fee.

“Fire protection is a quintessential generalized government service,” he said. He described the bill that led to the fee as “horribly flawed,” and said Brown was playing the same budget games as previous governors.

“It’s the same old gimmicks year after year,” Coupal said.

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