USA– An emergency state mandate to charge 800,000 rural homeowners up to $150 a year for Cal Fire’s wildlands fire prevention services is drawing opposition in rural counties. In one area of Wilton, in southern Sacramento County, owners of 230 homes will pay $115 starting this year to support the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. That’s a $35 discount because the Wilton residents, like 90 percent of all affected homeowners statewide, already pay for fire protection from their local fire district. Critics complain that the charge, which will generate about $85 million annually for the state starting in fiscal 2012-13, will make it harder for local fire districts to raise money. And, they say, there is no new service in exchange for the fee to be imposed across more than 30 million acres of California wildland and watershed areas. Gov. Jerry Brown this year has waged a campaign to charge rural residents for the costs of fire protection since an increasing number have moved to wildland areas. And state fire officials say the greater the number of homes in rural areas, the higher the cost of fighting fires. “In other words, if an area is completely dominated by vegetation, it probably would not require as many resources to protect it,” said George Gentry, executive officer of the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection. Yet some critics conclude that rural homeowners are unfairly penalized. And since they tend to have less clout than residents of urban centers, they are the go-to group for backfilling state budget cuts. About $80 million has been cut from Cal Fire’s general fund budget so far this year. Nevada County Supervisor Hank Weston called the $150 charge “a farce to fill a budget gap created by the state.” “There is not an increased service level. (State officials) are going to take the money and hire more people to collect the fee.” Weston said the program, which the Legislature adopted as part of the state budget package, doesn’t distinguish between levels of risk within state responsibility areas. “I live in a fire district with a strong fire protection program. We have requirements to provide a lot of clearing,” he said. “I now have to pay for (Cal Fire). For what? That’s not the way it (should) be.” The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is shaping its strategy for a lawsuit. “We felt it was a tax, not a fee; and, therefore, it constitutionally required a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature, rather than a simple majority,” said Tim Bittle, director of legal affairs for the association. The Forestry Board’s Gentry counters that critics overlook several important issues. Residents who live inside the designated fire prevention areas are receiving a disproportionate service, he said. “Structure fire is one thing,” he said. “But in the case of a wildland fire, where fire is coming from the forest toward a community, that requires additional resources for protection, that’s the rationale,” Gentry said. The state does not have responsibility to fight structure fires, he said, so the Cal Fire fee doesn’t duplicate the cost of local fire districts. Protests, however, are not dying down. The Regional Council of Rural Counties, which represents 31 counties in California, has called the fee “grossly inequitable.” “It takes more of Cal Fire’s resources to prevent or contain a fire on the outskirts of the city of San Diego than it does in any portion of Trinity County,” the group’s legislative advocate, Cyndi Hillery, said in a Nov. 9 letter to the chairman of the state Board of Forestry. The California State Association of Counties, in a January letter to the Forestry Board’s Gentry, opposed the fee, calling it “double taxation without any additional benefit.” The CSAC is backing legislation, AB 1506 by Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, which seeks to repeal the program outright. A separate measure, AB 2474, by Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, would offer homeowners a break if they already pay for local fire protection. In Wilton, fee opposition leader Bobbie Winn said the state responsibility area seems arbitrary. Across the street from her home, she said, neighbors won’t pay the state fee since they’re outside the designated area. Yet there’s little to distinguish the two sides of the street, she said. Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli said he’s aware of the frustration Wilton residents feel about the issue. In a community meeting last week, he said, Wilton residents complained to Cal Fire that the fee is not being applied equally in the community. “It seems reasonable to me that a modification of the (state responsibility area) boundaries makes good sense,” Nottoli said, adding that supervisors later this month will consider writing a letter of support on behalf of Wilton.