The State Board of Equalization will postpone fire prevention fee billings that affect nearly a million rural California households, 13,727 in Eastern Madera County. The delay has come about due to thousands of appeals filed with the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection challenging the legality of the fees and inaccurate billing data.
Between August and September last year, the state mailed nearly 800,000 bills for fiscal year 2011-2012. After the $115 - $150 bills per habitable structure on each property were sent, the state received 87,000 petitions for reconsideration from homeowners who said the bill they received was not accurate.
More than 70% of the appeals came from homeowners who felt the fee is an illegal tax, and all those appeals were denied according to Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire spokesman. The other appeals came from homeowners who said their property is not in a State Responsibility Area (SRA), homeowners who said they did not receive the $35 discount for being in a rural fire district and homeowner who said they were erroneously charged for dwellings that are not on their property.
Former Senator George Runner, now a member of the State Board of Equalization, spoke out against the fee when first approved by the governor and signed into law by the legislature on July 11, 2011, calling the fee "unfair, unconstitutional and a money-grab by the state."
"The governor and the legislature simply called it a "fee" to avoid the 2/3rds vote requirement designed to protect taxpayers," Runner said. "Additionally, this new tax, hitting property owners who are already financially challenged, will not result in increased fire protection," Runner said. "Instead, the money collected will take the place of funding that was diverted to other government programs."
Although against the fee, Runner encouraged those impacted to pay it because it is current law.
In a letter to the state Board of Forestry, Runner said as a matter of fairness, it is important that the billing of these accounts be delayed until these "errors and inconsistencies" are resolved by the Board of Forestry.
The board of equalization is required to collect the fees on behalf of the California Department of Forestry and Cal Fire.
As of March 1, about 72% of bills have been paid in full and about 6% paid in part, yielding $72 million for the state.
The Regional Council of Rural Counties, including Madera County, have been opposed to the fees since they were first announced.
"We (county board of supervisors) have opposed the fees from the beginning," said District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler. "The fact that Cal Fire has asked to postpone this year's bills due to errors only further demonstrates how ill conceived this tax truly is. The fire fee is grossly inequitable upon rural residents and highly discriminatory."
Assemblyman Frank Bigelow is advocating a full repeal of the fees, calling them a "state budget gimmick."
On March 12, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit against the state board of equalization, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Department of Justice challenging the constitutionality of the measure.
"Californians should note that the board of equalization is only billing and collecting the fees for deposit into the fund which Cal Fire administers, as mandated by this legislation," said Jerome E. Horton, board of equalization chairman, in a prepared statement. "The board of equalization does not have a stake in the outcome of this lawsuit."
The fees are administered by Cal Fire, the agency responsible for defending the lawsuit in court.
"If the law is found to be unconstitutional, we will not permit these fees to further burden fee payers," Horton said.
"The wheels of justice grind slowly, but I'm pleased that this vitally important lawsuit is moving forward," Runner said in a prepared statement. "Recent revelations regarding the state's misuse of fire fee dollars have only strengthened our case that the 'fire fee' is really an illegal tax."
Runner earlier said that everyone in the state who paid the bill would be a party in the lawsuit.
In a letter sent to the state board of forestry, Runner said many structures may have been accidentally included in the SRA.
The state is gearing-up for a second round of bills to rural property owners for fiscal year 2012-2013. An updated mailing schedule can be found at boe.ca.gov.