FIRES: State board approves revised fees

FIRES: State board approves revised fees

11 January 2012

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USA — California’s forestry board on Wednesday adopted revised regulations setting a fee on structures in rural areas, a charge that could raise as much as $100 million for wildfire prevention efforts.

Wednesday’s vote marked the third time in five months that the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection approved emergency regulations to carry out June budget legislation to impose a $150 fee on structures in the 31 million acres where the state has the primary firefighting responsibility. That includes about 1 million acres in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The revised rules target the fee at structures that have assessor numbers. For example, an apartment building would pay just one fee, but individually owned condominiums grouped together would each pay the fee.

An estimated 800,000 habitable structures – including 42,200 in Riverside County and 65,900 in San Bernardino County – would be subject to the $150 fee, based on census data.

In August, the forestry board approved a fee that maxed out at $90 and would have raised much less revenue than the Brown administration and the Legislature’s Democratic majority wanted.

In November, a revamped board stocked with new Brown appointees approved a $150 fee, with a $35 discount for structures in local fire districts.

But the Office of Administrative Law, which has to sign off on the regulation before it can take effect, raised questions about some of the rule’s details. That led to Wednesday’s rewrite – and renewed disagreement about the charge.

Forestry board chairman Stanley Dixon, of Eureka, was one of the dissenters in the 6-2 vote Wednesday. He blamed “the greedy Legislature.”

“They needed money to move forward with the state budget. I understand that,” he said of lawmakers. “But the way this thing came down was totally wrong.”

Board member Susan Britting, of Coloma, said the fee is necessary to pay for fire-prevention efforts and preserve the budget of Cal Fire, which took a $50 million general-fund hit this year. She noted that she will be among those who will have to pay the fee.

“In its simplest form it’s about paying for services. When I described that to my neighbors, they understood,” she said.

Critics call the charge an illegal and ill-conceived tax that lands heaviest on rural Californians. Opponents have pledged to sue as soon as the first bills arrive.

Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, said he plans to introduce legislation today to repeal the fee.

Barring further questions, the law office is scheduled to act on Wednesday’s emergency regulations before the end of the month. The Board of Equalization could begin sending out bills soon after.

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