Over strong objections from rural counties and some state legislators, the State of California began mailing the first of more than 825,000 "Fire Prevention Fee" bills Monday.
The tax, approved as a fee by a simple majority vote of the Legislature last year, charges residential property owners in rural areas $150 for each habitable structure located on their land. Property owners who pay for local fire protection will receive a $35 reduction.
The bills will go out in alphabetical order by county starting with Alameda, Alpine and Amador counties, between Aug. 13 and early December. Bills to residents in Eastern Madera County are expected to be mailed in October.
Madera County will receive the most bills, upwards of 17,600 Mountain Area parcels on 369,140. About 9,845 residents of the foothills of Fresno County will receive the bills.
The fees were part of the state budget signed into law in July 2011, aimed at recouping firefighting expenses in State Responsibility Areas of California. The fees were made possible by Assembly Bill 29X that requires the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection to establish an emergency scheme to impose fees upon property owners within State Responsibility Areas overseen by Cal Fire by Sept. 1. In January, the State Board of Forestry adopted emergency regulations to impose the fees.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the concept of the fee is to create stable funding for fire protection. The fee aims to raise $50 million statewide the first year and $200 million in future years. The money will help offset the state's rising expense of fighting fires, which has nearly doubled over the past decade to $775 million last fiscal year according to Berlant.
Gov. Jerry Brown, in a letter to the state Assembly last year, said ""there has been a significant increase in ... costs associated with fire protection due to increased population and building in fire danger areas ... a portion of the costs should be funded by landowners in those areas."
The funds will go to the state's general fund and Cal Fire will use a portion of the funds for fire prevention programs such as fuel breaks, homeowner inspections and education.
The Regional Council of Rural Counties, which represents 30 rural counties in the state including Madera County, sent a letter to Stan Dixon, chairman of the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, pointing out a number of concerns over the fee.
"RCRC believes this legislation raises a number of financial, equity, administrative and logistical issues that will create long-term fiscal concerns that may prove detrimental to California and urges the board to consider the potential pitfalls," stated the council's chairperson Diane Dillon in the July 12, 2011 letter.
"The upfront costs of implementing the SRA fee are staggering -- $15.3 million dollars for a maximum possible collection of $84 million," said Diane Dillon, RCRC immediate past chairperson and Napa County Supervisor. "Spending that kind of money from the state General Fund to add 86 new positions at the Board of Equalization and Cal Fire at a time when the state faces a multi-billion dollar hole doesn't make fiscal sense," she added.
Dillon, a member of the Napa Valley Board of Supervisors pointed out that similar legislation (SB 1049) was passed in 2003 but was repealed before any funds could be collected due to administrative and legal issues.
The Madera County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to George Gentry, executive officer of the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, signed by Frank Bigelow, board chairman at the time.
"Such ambiguity is likely to result in property owners within the State Responsibility Area paying into the fund but seeing no actual additional prevention projects completed," wrote Bigelow.
The county letter stated many Madera County landowners have already agreed to assess themselves for fire protection and prevention and that imposing the fee would have the effect of double taxation without any additional benefit.
At the time, Tom Wheeler, District 5 supervisor said it was not right to apply the fee just to rural California and not cities as well.
"Cal Fire provides a fair amount of fire protection services to cities as well as foothill areas ... I don't't see how they can discriminate against rural California,." Wheeler said.
"This was passed illegally," said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen. "All new fees need to be passed by a two-thirds vote ... rural areas already pay extra without any guarantee that their services will be better. A lawsuit will be filed when bills start arriving just around the corner; those receiving letters can join as plaintiffs."
"If enacting a state fee, it needs to be enacted state-wide, not just in specific counties," Koerperich said. "These funds will not help Cal Fire locally."
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association said it's waiting for bills to arrive before suing to have the charges refunded. Cal Fire will have 60 days to respond to any requests to appeal the bills.
"It's not fair ... it's not constitutional, but thanks to Governor Jerry Brown and the legislature, fire tax bills are coming all the same," said George Runner, an elected member of the State Board of Equalization.
Elected in November 2010, Runner represents more than nine million Californians as a member of the State Board of Equalization.
To help inform California taxpayers, Runner has established a website, calfirefee.com, providing information about the new fire tax.
Californians can visit this site to find out if they might soon receive a fire tax bill. They can also learn details regarding the process, timeline and grounds for filing an appeal.