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Cal Fire accused of hiding funds

Matthew Renda
Staff Writer

A cadre of California Republican lawmakers asked Gov. Jerry Brown Monday to repeal the State Responsibility Area fire fee and restore money to those who had paid their bills, after a report surfaced that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had improperly diverted $3.6 million.

Cal Fire had been storing taxpayer dollars in an account managed by the nonprofit California District Attorneys Association, paying the group to hold the funds rather than depositing into the state’s general fund, as required by statute, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The report prompted a letter signed by 24 prominent Republicans, including Nevada County representatives Sen. Ted Gaines and Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, accusing the state of being prodigal and misleading with taxpayer resources.

“It is clear that the state has not been judicious in its use of taxpayer dollars,” the letter states. “The state must stop these outrageous duplicitous tactics.”

“It is clear that the state has not been judicious in its use of taxpayer dollars.”

— Ted Gaines,
State Senator

Gaines recently sent a letter to Attorney General Kamala Harris urging her to conduct a full investigation into the handling of funds.

“This is a very serious and disturbing matter that calls for a thorough investigation by the attorney general to determine whether there are any related criminal charges that should be brought,” said Gaines. “Hiding funds outside the state system with an organization that is profiting from the account simply reeks of wrongdoing and demands to be looked into.”

Betsy Hodges, spokeswoman for Gaines’ office, said Harris has yet to respond to the request, but the senator’s office will continue to do anything within its power to encourage officials to “get to the bottom” of the alleged misuse of funds.

The report of improper fund management comes seven months after California State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned amid accusations her department deliberately concealed about $20 million for about nine years.

“Recent … reports about the budgeting practices of state departments are undeniably disturbing, from the hidden slush funds at the (parks department) to the blatant diverting of (Cal Fire) settlement monies collected from businesses,” the letter from the 24 Republican lawmakers states. The group further accused Cal Fire of spending “the subterfuge money” on various “questionable expenditures that have nothing to do with reimbursing the state for firefighting costs, including $33,000 at a luxury resort in Pismo Beach and the purchase of 600 digital cameras.”

The letter further criticized how Brown plans to allocate the estimated $90 million that will be collected from the SRA Fee.

“According to the budget you submitted to the Legislature, Cal Fire will not be using the SRA fire tax revenue solely on fire prevention, as was its stated statutory purpose, but on administration and other bureaucratic costs, which will not provide the promised prevention benefit to SRA taxpayers,” the letter states.

Gaines has long opposed the SRA fee, claiming it is actually an illegally imposed tax.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in conjunction with numerous plaintiffs — including El Dorado County — 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 to the more than 825,000 rural properties being assessed in the suit.

Cal Fire officials did not return phone calls seeking comment as of press time Monday.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email mrenda@theunion.com or call 530-477-4239.

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