Rick Nolle: Where’s my money from the State Responsibility Area Fee?
July 27, 2018
Here we are less than halfway through the fire season and I still don't know the answer to my question: "Where's my money?" For that matter, I'd also like to know "Where's your money?"
What money you ask? How about the $125 million plus surplus reserve that we all paid in the illegal tax called a "fee" by our lovely state legislators. The tax (fee) was known as the "State Responsibility Area Fee" ("SRA Fee"). It amounted to $150 per parcel with habitable structure per year with a small discount for those covered by a local fire district. The fee was to fund fire prevention.
Let's take a moment and revisit how this theft came into existence.
In 2011, our state legislature was struggling to balance the budget. Of the several options legislators had: 1) Reduce spending on existing programs; 2) Don't authorize new spending on a new program; 3) Steal some money from a department that can't fight back, reimburse them by taxing (calling it a "special assessment fee") a group that can't fight back at the ballot box, and cowardly avoid having to publicly admit they raised taxes instead of making some tough decisions.
No matter what we spend on prevention we can’t stop all fires. However, we must start sometime and somewhere with comprehensive, statewide fire prevention programs.
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No surprise, Option 3 was the winner.
The victim of the budget grab was the fine women and men of Cal Fire. They took a $50 million budget hit in 2011 and each subsequent fiscal year. The victims of the "Special Assessment Fee" were you and me by being taxed to make up the $50 million grab. The real number they collected was about $75 million per year for an excess of $25 million a year. That went into a reserve account. Hence the $125 million reserve mentioned above.
Why us? Well, simply, people living in the SRA are about 800,000 voters thinly spread up and down the state. None are in sufficient numbers in a voting district to rise up and vote some lame, cowardly legislators out of office. This "fee" has been litigated by the Howard Jarvis Foundation as an illegal tax. Which it is.
A "Special Assessment Fee" has very specific, court tested rules. I personally participated in the successful passage of a special assessment fee for the Penn Valley Fire Protection District. I know the rules, have read the court cases outlining the rules and procedures. Our legislature followed none of them. The really pathetic part is the Democrats had a super majority and could have passed this as a tax. Oops, that would have taken courage.
Admitting you raised taxes doesn't get you votes. Even more pathetic is that a state court in December 2017 dismissed the Jarvis law suit on the basis that too much time had passed. Totally ignoring the fact that the State of California had used numerous delaying tactics, procedural moves, and buried the Jarvis group under 12,000 or so documents for a period exceeding five years.
Why is this so important? Why am I so riled up? If you get the opportunity to speak to a firefighter, whether local, state, or federal, and they will tell you that a dollar spent on fire prevention returns about 10 times the value of a dollar spent on fire suppression. We always seem to find money for suppression, but not prevention.
An article in The Union this spring stated, "California state agencies spent nearly $1.8 billion fighting fierce wildfires that killed dozens of people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses last year, legislative budget experts reported Thursday." Not to worry. The state must eat only about $371 million of that $1.8 billion. Using the 10 to 1 formula, we have missed out on $3.71 billion in fire prevention impact. At this point that's water under the bridge or over the dam, take your pick.
No matter what we spend on prevention we can't stop all fires. However, we must start sometime and somewhere with comprehensive, statewide fire prevention programs. Forget about the property losses. We are risking the lives of some of our best, brightest, and bravest first responders year after year.
Fire suppression is a losing strategy. Why not start with the $125 million mentioned above? Remember, the $125 million is left over after reimbursing CalFire for the $50 million budget grab. The Jarvis Foundation was pressing for a refund of the excess. That would be nice, but I would settle for it being used as "seed money" for some comprehensive fire prevention here in Nevada County, as well as statewide.
Something to nosh on. A key provision of a "Special Assessment Fee" is that the dollars can only be spent on the specific activity that is the basis of the fee. It can only be spent where the fee was collected.
Our own District 4 County Supervisor Hank Weston sent a letter to Cal Fire questioning why only about 42 percent of the funds collected in 2013-2014 in the Nevada, Yuba, Placer CalFire unit were being returned to those areas. It seems Supervisor Weston also wants to know "Where's our money?"
We all need to rise up and let our legislators know that we want action. You, your family, friends, and just about everyone with the potential to be touched by wildland fire needs to ask their legislator: "Well, where's my money?"
Rick Nolle, a Nevada County resident, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the board or its members. He can be reached at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.