USA — Last year, CalFire announced a new fire protection fee for homes in unincorporated rural areas. It made sense in concept. Residents of California’s cities and counties pay local taxes that support their local fire agencies in case the house catches fire.
Residents in rural areas – significantly more prone to the state’s frequent wildfires than those in the cities – expect a similar protection but weren’t necessarily paying for it.
That meant the state would expend enormous sums of money to protect a few homes when fighting wildfires in mountains and back country. Think of the devastating Station Fire in 2009, which cost nearly $100 million to fight in total and was paid for by all of us. It was money well-spent, of course.
But $150 per home isn’t a lot to pay for the premium of living on the edge of these wild – and sometimes dangerous – places. Those who already paid for protection from another agency can get a discount.
The estimated $84 million to be collected each year (including from 28,000 local residents) was intended to pay for rural firefighting efforts
The problem is, the so-called fire protection fee doesn’t seem to be paying for local fire protection, instead going into the black hole of the budget of the California Department of Forestry, CalFire. Furthermore, CalFire has generally shown itself in recent months to be a poor steward of the public’s money by hiding millions of dollars and using its budget in questionable ways. Though the fee in concept makes sense, it’s unsupportable considering the misuse of funds so far.
The state was served with a lawsuit this month filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association that challenges the fee on constitutional grounds. State law requires that fees can be collected only for a specific purpose and use and not simply to support the overall operating budget of an agency, as CalFire seems to be doing.
That makes it a tax, and thus requires a two-thirds vote in the state Legislature. That didn’t happen.
What did happen is that disturbing information about CalFire’s handling of money came to light. After the disclosure last year that the state parks department was hiding money to keep it out of the hands of the Legislature, scrutiny of other state founds turned up $3.6 million that CalFire had been paying the California District Attorneys Association to hide and using it as a slush funds for tech toys and junkets. That money, as was reported in January by the Los Angeles Times, was collected from legal settlements.
Rather than fight a lawsuit that seems to have a solid basis, the Legislature should recognize that this “fee” is a tax, and refund the more than $70 million that thousands of Californians have already paid. Until CalFire can be trusted to manage public money better, it shouldn’t be given any more.