State Sen. Ted Gaines is burning on the State Responsibility Area fire fee, and he is not about to be quelled.
The Republican lawmaker who resides in Roseville and represents Nevada County has been fighting the SRA fee since Governor Jerry Brown signed the Assembly bill in July 2011.
This week, Gaines introduced three separate pieces of legislation intended to overturn the fire fee or exempt property owners who reside within the boundaries of a fire protection district or are low income.
“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 and other California Republicans representing rural areas have long maintained the fee is actually an illegal tax that should have required a two-thirds vote of the California Legislature rather than a simple majority vote it received in 2011.
The fee is anticipated to generate $90 million in the coming fiscal year, which is to be used toward fire prevention services — such as forest thinning and fuel removal — in the specific areas where the fee is being assessed.
The measure was deemed to be a fee because the feepayer will receive specific and direct benefits within the State Responsibility Area, said Lia Moore, a fiscal analyst with the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.
In the recent 2013-14 budget proposal unveiled by Brown, a proposal to hire 10 personnel for Cal Fire’s Civil Cost-Recovery Program using money derived from the SRA Fee was deemed unconstitutional.
“We asked the Office of Legislative Counsel to issue a verbal opinion, and they said (the proposal) did not meet the legal definition of what the fee could be used for,” Moore said. The attempt to fund the cost recovery program — which attempts to recoup funds from individuals who started fires purposely or through gross negligence — drew the ire of 24 California Republican lawmakers who sent a terse letter to Gov. Brown last Friday.
“This will take away $1.7 million from fire prevention purposes,” the letter states. “While we still believe this tax is illegal, at a minimum the money should be used for its stated purpose — preventing wildfires.”
Gaines and other Republicans have also expressed outrage over reports that Cal Fire stashed away about $3.6 million in taxpayer dollars rather than depositing the money into the state general fund, as required.
“My legislation comes at a time when Cal Fire has been accused of stashing away millions in a secret fund,” Gaines said. “I hope my legislative colleagues realize that charging rural Californians a $150 illegal fire fee specifically to support Cal Fire operations at the same time they are hiding millions provides enough justification to support these bills.”
Brown downplayed the report Tuesday, dismissing it as “a boring story.”
Higgins Fire Protection District officials, who are set to try to pass a tax measure in early May that would add $100 to annual property tax bills for its constituents, said the $150 SRA fees will hinder their efforts.
“Of course it affects our campaign,” said Higgins Fire Chief Jerry Good. “At the same time, it comes down to: We have to educate our constituents that the money they are voting on will be sent here.”
Local fire entities will not see any of the money from the SRA fee — it will not help staff stations or reduce response times, Good said, adding he has not heard of any imminent fire prevention projects scheduled to be performed within the district.
“Cal Fire is a part-time fire department,” said Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Director Dave Hanson. “A lot of people don’t realize they only gear up for fire season.
“Residents that pay money for their local fire districts are paying for year-round 24-hour service.”
A lot of residents who received their bill in October expressed outrage that the fee was retroactive to the previous fiscal year and they would receive another bill less than six months later.
The Nevada County Board of Supervisors expressed “strong opposition” to the SRA Fee.
A letter crafted by Supervisor Hank Weston chastised the state for its lack of accountability and a suspicion the money would not be used for its professed purposes but “merely to prop up Cal Fire’s budget.”
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in conjunction with numerous plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court in early October, claiming the fee is an illegal tax.
Later, El Dorado County joined the class-action lawsuit.
Supervisor Nate Beason said if Cal Fire is successful in the lawsuit, it’s a possibility that the state would “increase the fee and broaden the application.”
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4239.