State-imposed fire fees — a bad approach for all of California
California’s rural county residents are currently receiving bills from the state of California for fire services under a 2011 legislative scheme known as State Responsibility Area (SRA) Fees.
These new fees are unfair, costly and do not reflect that rural residents (much like urban dwellers) are already paying for local fire services. Unfortunately, efforts to repeal these state-imposed fees have failed in the California legislature.
The concept of an SRA fee is not new. One was instituted several years ago but repealed because of pending litigation against it. Last year, Sacramento budget writers left a huge hole in the state’s lead firefighting agency, Cal Fire.
That budget hole was backfilled through a new fire fee on rural property owners. It passed into law with little opportunity for public input even though Cal Fire data shows that responses to fires are costliest in urban areas rather than rural ones. In addition, one of Cal Fire’s chief responsibilities is protection of the watershed. It’s no small irony that urban areas are among the chief beneficiaries of a healthy watershed yet are exempt from the fee.
Implementing the SRA fee is also costly. The state will have to pay more than $15 million in up-front costs to hire new state workers for this program.
Even after the ramp-up of hiring new employees, there is no guarantee that this scheme will pass legal muster. Lawsuits against the latest SRA fee have already been filed that will force the state to spend millions of dollars in legal bills.
The current scheme is a prime example of hastily enacted legislation without benefit of proper analysis or the appropriate administrative infrastructure review. Such a process would have exposed many, if not all, of the challenges now faced by the process.
Revenues gained under this scheme are being eroded dramatically by the substantial costs of billing, collecting and adjudication — all of which will impact local fire agencies’ ability to carry out their responsibilities.
What is most disturbing is how this fee is being imposed. The Legislature required Cal Fire and the state Board of Equalization to administer the fee. By all accounts, it appears that in developing the list of fee-payers, Cal Fire used data that is incomplete and inaccurate.
As such, thousands of property owners are already receiving bills that they should not pay or being billed at rates higher than they should be. It should be noted that neither county assessors, tax collectors nor boards of supervisors had any role in developing this fee nor do they want any part of the implementation of this unfair process.
There are reports of cases whereby property owners are being billed for structures that are located inside incorporated cities, which by definition are outside the SRA. There are reports of residents receiving bills for properties that do not have structures on them or the structures that do exist are uninhabitable.
As well, thousands of owners have received bills that do not incorporate the $35 discount associated with the availability of local fire protection services.
Many rural county residents already pay for local fire services; moreover, some have no Cal Fire presence at all in their areas. These SRA fees will result in double or triple taxation with no added benefit and will hurt local fire departments by making it nearly impossible to raise local revenues to support local firefighting efforts.
In turn, this weakens the state’s mutual aid system that allows it to respond to any type of major disaster.
And although local fire departments and Fire Safe Councils are supposed to receive funding for local fire prevention projects, the state’s Department of Finance has projected that local programs won’t see funding for several years because most of the money collected for at least the first five years will used for Cal Fire’s administrative costs created by the collection of the fee.
Rural counties have opposed this unjust fee from its incipiency. We continue to do so.
Unfair, costly and threatening to the state’s overall disaster management program — the Legislature needs to scrap this scheme and do it right away.
Nate Beason is the Nevada County First District Supervisor and a member of the Board of Directors of the Regional Council of Rural Counties.
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