Farmers hope to block fire fee
Acting on behalf of thousands of property owners across the state, the California Farm Bureau Federation filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to block enforcement of what it calls an illegal tax.
The lawsuit filed against the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection targets a fire-protection bill signed by ousted Gov. Gray Davis in the waning days of his administration.
Senate Bill 1049, also called the “benefits fee,” affects most of western Nevada County. It requires property owners to pay a one-time $70 fee and $35 annual fee per parcel, beginning this summer, for areas the state is responsible to protect in case of wildfires.
However, Farm Bureau attorney Carl Borden said the fee is a tax passed in violation of state propositions 13 and 218, which among other things require a two-thirds legislative approval.
“There is no corresponding benefit to taxpayers,” Borden said. “We’re saying it’s really a tax.”
The lawsuit filed in Sacramento Superior Court states, “It is hard to conjure up a single statute that has ever violated more provisions of propositions 13 and 218 than this one.”
Issues such as the size of the parcel, the property’s value and whether the property owner already pays a local fire-protection fee, are also neglected, Borden said.
“You could have a resort … and a vacant lot paying the $35 fee, although the benefits are nowhere near compatible,” he said.
The suit names as defendants the state of California and 56 of the state’s 58 counties. San Francisco and Sutter counties were left out of the suit because they don’t have any land within the state’s 31 million acres of State Responsibility Areas for wildfires.
“This is the first time I am glad to be sued,” Nevada County Treasurer and Tax Collector Christina Dabis. “(The fee) is not right, and it’s not fair … for practical and professional reasons.”
Dabis said a property owner with a piece of property divided by a road, for example, would be assigned two parcel numbers and thus be assessed the fee twice in spite of having one deed.
The Nevada County Board of Supervisors also expressed concern about the bill last October when it sent a letter to former Gov. Davis asking him to veto the bill.
In approving the draft letter, District 1 Supervisor Peter Van Zant said: “The Sierra is a natural asset for the whole state …. Sticking us with the fire protection bill is a little opportunistic.”
But this wasn’t the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s idea, spokeswoman Karen Terrill said. The department was blindsided when an anticipated $1 million cut became $50 million with instructions by the legislature to collect the lost money from the people it protects, she said.
That, in addition to another $50 million cut proposed by the new administration, leaves the department with a huge $100 million deficit, Terrill said.
“Collecting this fee makes us whole,” Terrill said. “Fire stations would close without this money.”
The department is awaiting direction and clarification from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration on how to proceed, Terrill said. In the meantime, CDF is operating on borrowed money from the state’s general fund, which is where fire-protection costs have been paid from previously.
“We understand that the state faces a budget crisis, but trampling over California law and silently slipping in new taxes is not the proper way to solve the problem,” California Farm Bureau President Bill Pauli said. “Our lawsuit will prevent public money from being wasted to implement this unconstitutional tax.”
The California Farm Bureau Federation is the state’s largest farm organization, representing more than 89,000 members in 53 county Farm Bureaus.
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