Fire fee flap flares up again
July 25, 2013
As the second wave of State Responsibility Area fee bills are poised to be released to California residents, officials representing rural counties are reiterating their steadfast opposition to the policy.
"I think we fail to see any benefit whatsoever to rural counties," said Nevada County Supervisor Ed Scofield.
The money being generated isn't leading to increased protection for any county residents, Scofield said — instead, he said, it is being used to backfill a budgetary hole created years ago on the backs of rural Californians.
The SRA fee was created by California Assembly Bill 29X, approved by the Democrat-dominated legislature in 2011 and subsequently signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The law imposes a fee of either $115 or $150, with property owners already covered by an existing fire protection district paying the lesser fee.
"It is bad public policy, and unfair to rural homeowners," said Kevin Cann, board chairman of the Rural County Representatives of California and a Mariposa County supervisor. "We will continue our efforts to repeal this fee and relieve rural homeowners of this duplicative tax."
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Bills have been mailed to Alameda and Alpine counties and are scheduled to hit mailboxes in Nevada County Aug. 29.
State Sen. Ted Gaines, who represents Nevada County, has long maintained that the fire fee not only places an undue financial burden on rural homeowners but is fundamentally illegal.
"This $150 fire tax is illegal and unfair — plain and simple," said Gaines. "My goal with these bills is to offer some hope and support to Californians who are still facing a 10 percent unemployment rate and struggling just to make ends meet."
Gaines introduced three bills this year to mitigate or overturn the fire fee; two were defeated before making it out of committee.
The only remaining bill exempts California residents with an annual income of less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level and is expected to be taken up next year, Gaines said.
The most promising avenue for repeal of the fire fee is the class action lawsuit spearheaded by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, Gaines said.
The suit argues the so-called fee is actually a tax, which should have required a two-thirds vote instead of the simple majority vote it received.
A Sacramento Superior Court Judge ruled last Friday that four co-plaintiffs to the lawsuit could not collect refunds due to their failure/refusal to submit a "petition for redetermination" — the form that indicates an individual is paying a bill under protest.
The state sought to have the case dismissed, said David Wolfe, the association's legislative director, but the judge ruled it could continue.
The Superior Court, which is backlogged, will likely take up the issue toward the end of the calendar year, Wolfe said.
Cal Fire maintains the charge on rural residents is a fee because residences within the SRA area derive specific benefits from the fire agency.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office recommended that the state collect money from homeowners who directly benefit from the state's firefighting efforts.
However, Jason Flores, fire chief of the North San Juan Fire Protection District, said the constituents in his district have received zero benefits as a result of legislative policy.
"We're not seeing any benefit up here," Flores said.
The state stands to collect an estimated $300,000 annually from property owners on the San Juan Ridge — $60,000 more than the local fire district's entire budget of $240,000, Flores said.
Jerry Good, fire chief of Higgins Fire Protection District, which covers much of South County, said the fire fee "added to the confusion" relating to his department's effort to pass a tax measure designed to bolster the finances of his cash-strapped agency.
Good also said his district has yet to see any specific benefits from the more than $77.1 million the state has collected as of July 1.
According to a Tuesday news release issued by the Rural County Representatives of California, Cal Fire expends more money for fire suppression in highly urbanized areas, not rural areas.
Furthermore, the first round of bills mailed to residents cost the state $15 million to implement and was plagued by inefficiency and errors, the release states.
George Runner, District 2 representative of the California Board of Equalization, said implementation was poorly executed because the State Responsibility Area was not intended to function as a tax jurisdiction.
"It will continue to be problematic," Runner said. "We may clean it up a little bit, but it will continue to be far from fixed. It's just an unfair way to tax. Period."
BOE statistics show that only 88 percent of those levied with the fee have responded with 12 percent not complying either due to the general air of protest surrounding the issue or due to procedural errors such as bad addresses or multiple bills sent to the same address.
State Sen. Ted Gaines said it is crucial for individuals to pay their bills under protest if they want to receive a refund if and when the HJTA lawsuit proves successful.
Not paying will result in 20 percent increases on an annual basis and will disqualify individuals from the refund process, Gaines said.
Cal Fire said it needs the approximately $84 million in annual revenue to maintain the current levels of service.
In 2012, Cal Fire spent $148 million on large, out-of-control wildfires, said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant in a previous report. 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 fee provides a much-needed and stable funding source to prevent these devastating wildfires, especially like those we've seen this year," Berlant said. "Preventing fires saves lives and homes, and we know that this funding is essential."
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4239.
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