USA–– Just a little over a year ago Sacramento lawmakers approved legislation that triggered a proverbial firestorm among property owners in the San Bernardino Mountains and other rural communities across the state.
The legislation levied a $150 fee on more than 825 thousand residential properties within the millions of rural acres that fall within the jurisdiction of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. These areas of responsibility, defined as State Responsibility Areas, include about a third of the state.
San Bernardino County has the second highest number of properties (including almost all of the mountain communities) affected by this legislationonly San Diego County has more. Included among the mountain areas are the communities of Cedarpines Park, Crestline, Valley of Enchantment, Rim Forest, Blue Jay, Twin Peaks, Lake Arrowhead, Running Springs and Green Valley Lake.
If there is a bright spot in all of this for mountain property owners it is that they are located in within areas served by local agencies that provide fire protection services. The involved agencies include the Crest Forest Fire Protection District for Crestline; County Fire for Lake Arrowhead; and, Running Springs Fire for the Running Springs communities. As a result, the state has provided for a $35 discount for residential property owners in these areas. This should reduce their fire fee bill to $115 versus $150 pointed to in the legislation. According to reports, more than 90-percent of rural property owners in the state are qualified for this discount.
The state plans to apply the fire fee to the primary residential structure on each property in the designated areas. Structures that are not habitable like garages, barns, etc. are not charged. Also, an apartment building built on a single parcel is only assessed one fee regardless of the number of units. However, condominiums are handled differently. In a condominium complex, each owner has a separate parcel and as a result, will be assessed the fee.
The new fee, approved as part of the state budget passed in June 2011, was based on the premise that all state taxpayers had been subsidizing tax payers living in rural areas that are historically at high risk for wildfires.
However, many critics of the fee argue that the affected property owners are now being double-taxed since part of the taxes they pay also go toward fire service. Critics also insist that state legislators called it a fee when it should be a taxhowever, the implementation of a new tax would have required a two-thirds super majority of both houses of the legislature.
Some readers may be surprised to learn that the new fee will not be used for fire suppression. It is not designed to buy new equipment or fight brush fires, etc. Instead, the fee will fund a variety of fire prevention activities like building fire breaks, clearing brush and other fuel reduction activities designed to decrease the risk of wildfire to communities and evacuation routes.
According to the states California Fire Prevention Fee website, the fee will also sponsor other activities including defensible space inspections, fire prevention engineering, emergency evacuation planning, fire prevention education, fire hazard severity mapping, implementation of the State Fire Plan and fire-related law enforcement activities such as arson investigation.
This past Friday, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors issued a press release reminding property owners that they will soon receive a billing statement for the new fee. In addition, the press release highlighted the boards position on this issue thatthe supervisors aggressively opposed the states imposition of this fee.
Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford led the criticism. This so-called fee is nothing but a gimmick to plug holes in the states chronically deficit-ridden budget, she said and continued. The residents who are being forced to pay it are receiving no additional benefits or services in return.
Critics point out the hypocrisy of the supervisors lamentations since the board recently raised a plethora of county fees to close its own budget gaps.
In its press release the board was quick to point out that property owners in these areas already pay an assessment for fire protection and prevention services, making the new state tax double taxation without any additional benefit.
The board has authorized county attorneys to explore the possibility of legal action against the state to protect residents against the fee. But, the board is not the only entity fighting against the state on this issue.
On October 3, the Howard Jarvis Association, a nonprofit advocacy group that has claimed that the new fee is illegal, filed a class action suit in the Sacramento Superior Court against the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention and the Board of Equalization seeking to overturn the fire fee.
Whether the states new assessment is truly a fee or a tax will ultimately be decided by the courts but in the meantime property owners must respond to the bill. The property owner has 30 days from the date of the bill to pay it or they may be subjected to penalties, fees if they are late or other actions if fee remains unpaid. If a homeowner cannot afford to pay the entire bill they can make payment arrangements with the Board of Equalization.
Property owners also have a right to file an appeal. Grounds for an appeal can include the fact that the structure is commercial (not residential); that the billed party was not the owner in July, 2011; that the property is not located within a Service Responsibility Area; or, for homeowners who believe the bill is unconstitutional because they see it as a tax, they can appeal if they believe that they will not receive any direct benefits from it.
Each appeal must include the specific ground upon which the appeal is being contested and evidence supporting the claims made in the appeal. It should be mailed to the California Department of Forestry, Fire Prevention Fee Service Center, P.O. Box 2254, Suisun City, Ca. 94585.
CalFire will have sixty days to review the petition and issue a written decision that will determine whether the fee was valid and the petitioner should be billed the full amount; the fee should be modified; or, that the fee should be eliminated. If you are owed a refund a claim must be filed with the Board of Equalization for repayment.
Interested persons can obtain a Petition for Redetermination for by calling the Fire Prevention Fee Service Center at 888-310-6447 or the websitewww.FirePreventionFee.org .
It is very possible that as a result of this fee the state will collect nearly 89 million dollars for fiscal year 2011-12. But, this is not the end of the fire fee assessments. The current assessments are for the fiscal year 2011-12. In the spring, homeowners can expect a bill for the 2012-13 fiscal year to be followed the next year by the 2013-14 fire fee assessment.