Residents urged to appeal state fire fee bills

Bills from state started hitting Mountain Area mail boxes last week

Brian WilkinsonOctober 4, 2012 

Bills from the state requiring rural residential property owners in a California State Responsibility Area to pay $150 for each habitable structure on their land for fire prevention hit mailboxes in the Mountain Area last week to the dismay of many. And the most outspoken person against the bills sits on the 5-member State Board of Equalization, the office who sent the bills.

"This bill is an unfair, unconstitutional tax and a money-grab by the state," Runner said. "The California Constitution requires that new taxes be approved by two-thirds of the membership of both houses of the Legislature. Because many homeowners will not see a direct benefit from their payment of the bill, this charge is a tax and only had a majority vote of the legislature. Not having been properly approved by the Legislature makes it illegal."

Regardless of his strong opinion about the bills, Runner is telling the 13,727 property owners in Madera County and the 800,000 statewide who received the bills to pay them because it is the law and he doesn't want people to get caught up in penalties and interest. But he is encouraging people to quickly appeal the bills they have received.

Residents have 30 days from the date on the bill to appeal.

Runner has also been critical on how the collected funds will be used.

"This money will not pay for firefighters, fire trucks, fire hoses or water," said Runner. "The funds collected, optimistically projected to be $84 million, are restricted to funding existing fire prevention efforts and can not be used for firefighters or actual fire suppression."

Runner said that the way the law was written, providing 30 days for appeal, made it pretty restrictive to make an appeal.

"We tried to send notices out 90 days in advance to give people a chance to prepare financially, but the way the law was written people have just 30 days from the date on the letter to appeal," Runner said.

Grounds for appeal can include any of the following:

The structure is commercial (not residential).

The regulation developed by the Forestry Board defines "dwelling unit" as including "provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking and sanitation."

The person receiving the bill was not the owner in July 2011.

The structure is not in an State Responsibility Area.

Runner advises people to check the maps and make sure your home is within an SRA.

"If it's not, the fee doesn't apply to you," he said. "The bill you receive could also be based on wrong information about your property."

"The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association group is planning to challenge the legality of the law and eventually the issue will come before a judge," Runner said. "At that time, everyone in the state that paid their bill will become a party to the law suit."

As of last week, nearly 3,000 appeals were filed with about 1,800 protests based on illegality of the fee. About 70 property owners have claimed a financial hardship and Runner said he is working with fee administrators to give property owners the option of paying in installments.

Runner said if a judge rules the law to be illegal, the state will be forced to refund everyone.

"If that happens, I'm sure the state will appeal that decision but in the meantime the state will keep the funds collected to help with the states fiscal problem," Runner said. "If they have to pay it back, that is something they will worry about next year."

Some politicians have criticized Runner, who was elected to his position and represents about 25% of Californians, for being so outspoken about the fire fees.

According to an Associated Press story last week, Democrats including state Controller John Chiang, Senator Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and and fellow Board of Equalization member Betty Yee says Runner, a former state senator who was elected to the BOE in 2010, has gone too far in opposing a lawfully enacted fee he helps administer.

"I represent the nine million Californians and it is my objective to make sure Californians are being treated fairly," Runner said. "I have a job to do -- to administer the tax law, but at the same time I will represent the people of the state if I feel they are being taxed unfairly and use the courts to determine that."

The bills were sent out to counties alphabetically starting with Alameda and Alpine and the bills for the Mountain Area of Madera county starting arriving last week.

Property owners who pay for local fire protection receive a $35 reduction.

What Runner calls a 'tax,' was approved as a fee by a simple majority vote of the legislature last year and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

To help inform California taxpayers, Runner established the website calfirefee.com, providing information about the new fire tax. People are encouraged to visit the site for appeal information.

The appeal petition can be downloaded at firetaxprotest.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Petition_for_Redetermination_Fillable.pdf.

Although only one address appears at the bottom of the form, state law requires that you submit the form to three different addresses:

Fire Prevention Petitions, P.O. Box 2254, Suisun City, CA 94585.

Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, P.O. Box 944246, Sacramento, CA 94244.

Board of Equalization, P.O. Box 942879, Sacramento, CA 94279.

The appeal review by the Department of Forestry will be completed within 60 days and the decision will be provided to you in writing. In that written notice, they will notify you whether (1) the fee was valid and you should be billed the full amount, (2) the fee should be modified, or (3) the fee should be eliminated.

If it is determined that a refund is owed you, a claim must be filed with the Board of Equalization for repayment.

The Jarvis group recommends that when you pay the fee, write "under protest" on the notation line of your check. Also, make a copy of the check so that you can enclose it with your Petition for Redetermination form, as proof of payment. Details: firetaxprotest.org

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