Scott Wilk: Fighting California’s illegal fire tax

Scott Wilk: Fighting California’s illegal fire tax

15 May 2015

published by

USA — In the next few months, more than 800,000 California homeowners, including residents of some areas in unincorporated Santa Clarita Valley, will get a bill in the mail requiring them to pay a state fee for fire prevention and safety services.

Don’t let the labeling fool you: This “safety fee” is an illegal tax, plain and simple.

In 2011 the Legislature voted to place this burdensome new “fee” on California’s rural residents. Property owners who own land in a designated State Responsibility Area SRA are required by law to pay $150 for every habitable structure on their property.

In many cases, this added tax is paid on top of local fire protection fees administered by the city or county.

This legislation was created with the intent that an annual “Fire Prevention Fee” would help fund fire prevention services in areas where the state of California is financially responsible for the prevention and suppression of wildland fires.

These areas are considered State Responsibility Areas.

The $75 million in revenue generated from this tax would then be allocated by the Legislature to the Board of Forestry, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

These funds would then be applied to preventing fires and protection activities in State Responsibility Areas, or SRAs.

Despite the way in which this measure was presented by the Legislature, it’s important to note that this tax does not pay for firefighters, fire trucks, fire hoses or water.

The money collected may only be spent to pay for fire prevention services, which include code enforcement officers and public education campaigns.

The tax was first put in place when Calfire funding was cut by $150 million during the Great Recession.

Even though our state budget is now much more stable, California’s rural residents are shelling out additional funds for the government. This is not only unfair, it is also illegal.

Increasing a tax with a majority vote, instead of a two-thirds vote, in the Legislature is illegal under Proposition 13. But this is exactly what was done with the fire tax.

As a result, the “fee” is being challenged in court by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association as an illegal tax.

This is a great step, but until the courts make an official ruling, rural Californians are stuck with the bill.

When residents receive the notice to pay, they can dispute the charge. That way, if the tax is found to be unconstitutional, they should also get a refund from Calfire.

However, under current law residents have only a month to pay the bill and then dispute it. If they miss this 30-day window, they may be ineligible for a refund if the tax is later found to be illegal.

Because many residents live far from city centers they do not receive their fire tax bills in a timely manner, and may not have enough time to dispute.

What is worse, those on fixed incomes are unable to pay their “Fire Prevention Fee” by the 30-day deadline. This is wrong and unjust.

That is why I have co-authored Assembly Bill 203 (Obernolte), which would increase the amount of time homeowners have to pay or dispute the tax from 30 days to 60.

This bill will help residents by giving them more time to dispute the tax.

I am pleased to be able to report that AB 203 passed the Assembly Natural Resources Committee on a bipartisan vote. It is now headed to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

My colleagues and I are working hard to ensure that this bill passes so that California homeowners can have some relief.

With the Legislature run by a majority party that seems to constantly be on a tax-and-spend spree, it seems very unlikely that an outright repeal of the fire tax will happen in the Legislature.

But this bill is a good first step. I believe the California courts will rule in favor of taxpayers, and that this unconstitutional tax on property owners is abolished.

Until then, I will do everything in my power to provide a voice for taxpayers.

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