Fired up over fire fee
October 17, 2012
Nevada County resident Barbara Brown is fed up.
She is elderly and living on the modest income she receives from Social Security checks.
"I am supporting my grandchildren and this just really hurts," Brown said of the bill she received in the mail on Tuesday for $115.
Brown said the California Department of Fire and Forestry is unfairly targeting rural areas in an attempt to balance its dwindling budget.
“... this fire fee is really double taxation.”
— Barbara Brown,
Nevada County resident
"Property taxes already go into the general fund to fund Cal Fire, so this fire fee is really double taxation," Brown said. The bill Brown and others living within the State Responsibility Area in Nevada County was for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
"I'm afraid I'll get billed again," she said. "What really makes me angry is that if you don't pay by Nov. 2, they start charging penalties for late payment. It seems like very short notice."
Brown is not the only one who feels unfairness regarding the SRA Fee.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in conjunction with numerous plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court claiming the fee is an illegal tax that should have required a two-thirds vote of the California Legislature rather than the simple majority vote it received in 2011, according to the Associated Press.
The lawsuit names Cal Fire, which decides who pays, and the state Board of Equalization, which distributed the bills earlier this month.
"When this thing is all done, it's going to be a monumental waste of time and money," said Jon Coupal, president of the taxpayers association.
More than 825,000 rural properties are being assessed the annual fee, the AP reported.
The Office of Legislative Counsel ruled that the charge on property owners is a fee because it directly pays for specific state services. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office recommended that the state collect money from homeowners who directly benefit from the state's firefighting efforts.
"The fee provides a much-needed and stable funding source to prevent these devastating wildfires, especially like those we've seen this year," said Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire spokesman. "Preventing fires saves lives and homes, and we know that this funding is essential."
Berlant added that the fee is to maintain current service levels, not to add additional personnel or programs.
In 2012, Cal Fire has spent $148 million on large, out-of-control wildfires. That exceeds the $93 million allotted for such fires in the state budget, and the balance will come out of the state's budget reserve.
The general fund, which funnels money to Cal Fire, is susceptible to fluctuations in the economy, Berlant said.
"It's why this fee is so essential — it establishes a steady source of income.
"Every year this state sees devastating fires and it seems like year after year we are seeing more of them," he said.
Berlant said the SRA fee was allocated to areas where Cal Fire has a larger responsibility in "preventing and suppressing wildfires."
In rural areas where there is already a local fire district providing service, a $35 discount was implemented, meaning residents are charged $115 per year.
The Nevada County Consolidated Fire District, one of the districts that provides service to the area's rural residents, officially opposed the implementation of the state agency's fee, saying it "will impose additional financial burden on its constituents without providing additional fire services."
Barbara Brown said residents like her will be less likely to pass local tax measures due to having to pay the annual fee to the state.
In a news release, Consolidated officials said homeowners within its boundaries already pay local taxes and fees for year-round protection.
"If it is the will of the state Legislature to reduce the burden on the state's general fun for Cal Fire costs, an alternative and more equitable mechanism is necessary," said Warren Knox, Chairman of Consolidated's board of directors.
The Regional Council of Rural Counties, a body with representatives from 32 of California's rural counties, also formally opposes the SRA fee.
County Assessor offices from the 32 counties are reporting a sharp spike in resident phone calls "as a result of incorrect, inaccurate and unwarranted billings," the RCRC stated in a Oct. 12 news release.
The RCRC has sent a letter to the state Board of Equalization requesting the suspension of the 20 percent penalty for late payment in light of the errors on many of the bills.
For more information or to confirm whether a property is within the State Responsibility Area, visit http://www.firepreventionfee.org.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4239.
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