Californians to receive fire fee billings

editor@sierrastar.comJuly 9, 2013 

The California State Board of Equalization will begin mailing fire prevention fee bills for fiscal year 2012-2013 to owners of habitable structures in rural areas of the state later this month. The bills, mandated by law, are being sent out at the direction of Cal Fire in alphabetical order of the county — Madera County bills are expected to start arriving in early fall.

About 13,700 residents in Eastern Madera County are affected by the bills that range from $115 to $150.

Between August and September 2012, the state mailed nearly 800,000 bills for fiscal year 2011-2012.

As of May 24, more than $76.4 million has been collected from the first year (2011-2012) fire fee, while nearly 87,000 Californians have filed appeals challenging the fee. Successful refunds have totaled more than $1.4 million. More than 165,000 bills were returned due to bad addresses.

In April, the board of equalization postponed the billings due to thousands of appeals filed with the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection challenging the legality of the fees and inaccurate billing data.

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.

"I am disappointed that the governor and legislature failed to repeal this unfair and unconstitutional tax during the recent budget negotiations," said retired Senator George Runner, member of the State Board of Equalization and sharp critic of the fees. "Their failure to take action means that rural taxpayers will be forced to pay this regressive tax yet again."

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed suit against the fees, although no court decision has been made at this time.

In May, attorney Jon Coupal, president of the group, said the suit is progressing and the association is known for winning most of its lawsuits. If the association's lawsuit is successful in overturning the fire fees, many people may receive a refund on fees paid. Formal protests of the fees can be made by going to firetaxprotest.org.

From the start, strong opposition has been voiced over the controversial bills from California homeowners, county board of supervisors, the Regional Council of Rural Counties and many politicians when first announced in 2011.

Runner first spoke out against the fee in July 2011, when the governor approved the the fee, calling it 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 requirement designed to protect taxpayers."

Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler called the fees "grossly inequitable upon rural residents and highly discriminatory."

Although against the fee, Runner has encouraged those receiving the bills to pay them because it is current law.

Bigelow has advocated full repeal of the fire fee (tax).

"I will continue to push for the law's repeal, but until it is, property owners must still pay the fee assessed by the state," Bigelow said. "Proponents who passed this tax claim that it is only fair to have those who live in high-risk areas pay the higher costs of firefighting. However, when an earthquake causes damage in urban areas — all California taxpayers are expected to fund the high costs of repair. That same principle should apply across the state. Fire protection in unincorporated areas preserves the water, air quality, and forests everyone enjoys and from which we all benefit."

Bigelow has expressed that the legislation that created the fire tax is legally suspect and being challenged in court.

"Voters approved Proposition 26 in 2010 to require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to approve new taxes, but the fire tax was passed by a simple-majority vote as a purported budget trailer bill," Bigelow said. "The fire tax is a clear attempt to undermine the will of the people."

In May, map changes to fix errors and inconsistences resulted in 4,659 acres being added and 17,502 acres removed from the State Responsibility Area. The adjusted maps will take affect for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. The boundary changes adopted for fiscal year 2013-2014 do not affect the billings being mailed for fiscal year 2012-2013.

Bill recipients who believe they should not have received a fire prevention fee bill should file an appeal, which is referred to as a petition for redetermination. A petition must be filed within 30 days of the date printed on the bill. The public can visit the fire prevention fee web page for a copy of the petition form. Feepayers may wish to consider paying the full amount to avoid interest charges while Cal Fire processes their appeal.

Feepayers with questions about the fire prevention fee program or the appeals process should contact the Fire Prevention Fee Service Center at 1-888-310-6447.

Feepayers with payment-related questions may call the Board of Equalization at (800) 400-7115 and select "fire prevention fee" for assistance. Representatives are available Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Details: boe.ca.gov/taxprograms/fire_prevention_fee_resource.htm and calfirefee.com.

More information is available at firepreventionfee.org.

"I am disappointed that the governor and legislature failed to repeal this unfair and unconstitutional tax during the recent budget negotiations."

— Retired Senator George Runner

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