Rural counties against fire fees

Second round of bills coming mid-August

editor@sierrastar.comJuly 30, 2013 

Nearly 13,700 residents of Eastern Madera County can expect to receive their 2012-2013 fire prevention fee bills around Aug. 21.

The California State Board of Equalization has started mailing the bills to counties in alphabetical order. The bills are for either $115 or $150 and are being sent to owners of habitable structures in rural areas of the state. The bills, mandated by law, are being sent out at the direction of Cal Fire.

Bills are due 30 days from the date printed on the bill. Your payment must be postmarked by the due date to avoid penalty and interest charges.

The State Responsibility Area fee is the result of budget bill AB 29X, approved by Governor Jerry Brown in 2011. The legislation was passed into law with little opportunity for public input, and was aggressively opposed by counties, fire districts, and associations representing firefighters.

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

As of late May, more than $76.4 million has been collected from the first year (2011-2012) fire fee, while nearly 87,000 Californians filed appeals with the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection challenging the legality of the fees and inaccurate billing data. Successful refunds have totaled more than $1.4 million.

In April, the board of equalization postponed the billings due to the appeals. 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.

Strong opposition

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 the plan was first announced in 2011.

Legislative attempts to repeal the fees, including a bill authored by Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, have been unsuccessful. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed suit against the fees, although no court decision has been made at this time.

"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, Jon Coupal, the Jarvis association's president, 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.

George Runner, a member of the State Board of Equalization, has been vocal in his criticism of the fees, calling them unfair and an unconstitutional tax.

Runner first spoke out against the fee in July 2011, when the governor approved the fee, calling the decision a money-grab by the state. Although against the fee, Runner has encouraged those receiving the bills to pay them because it is current law.

"The governor and the legislature simply called it a "fee" to avoid the 2/3rds vote requirement requirement designed to protect taxpayers," said at the time.

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

The Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC) announced July 23 their continued opposition to the state imposed fees as the second round of bills are being mailed. The fire prevention fees are aimed to backfill a void created in the Cal Fire budget in 2011.

"We remain opposed to this fee," said Kevin Cann, RCRC board chairman and Mariposa County Supervisor. "It is bad public policy, and unfair to rural homeowners. We will continue our efforts to repeal this fee, and relieve rural homeowners of this duplicative tax."

According to Rural County Reprsentatives of California, the first round of bills were mailed to rural homeowners in 2012, following a costly, and inefficient implementation period, where the state spent an estimated $15 million in up-front costs to launch the program.

RCRC has ongoing concerns with several aspects of the fee. First, according to Cal Fire's own data, their most expensive activities are for fire suppression in highly urbanized areas, not rural areas.

Second, most landowners in the SRA have already agreed to a fire protection and prevention tax at the local level, making the SRA fee duplicative.

Finally, SRA fees weaken the state's mutual aid system, and by taking a greater role, place the state in a position of long-term liability over local forfeiting and prevention efforts, leaving them vulnerable to legitimate litigation claims.

Appeals

If you believe you do not owe the fee, you may submit an appeal to Cal Fire, known as a petition for redetermination, after you receive the bill. The appeal must be submitted within 30 days from the date printed on the bill.

The appeal must be in writing and describe the specific grounds upon which you are basing the appeal. The form and mailing instructions can be found at the fire prevention fee website — firepreventionfee.org.

Cal Fire will review and make a decision on the appeal within 60 days from the time they receive the appeal. The BOE will be notified of the decision, and send a revised billing or issue a refund if Cal Fire determines the payments made are not due.

The filing of an appeal does not prevent accrual of interest. The public is advised to pay the fees while Cal Fire considers your appeal.

The Rural County Representatives of California is a thirty-three member county strong service organization that champions policies on behalf of California's rural counties. The RCRC is dedicated to representing the collective unique interests of its membership, providing legislative and regulatory representation at the State and Federal levels, and providing responsible services for its members to enhance and protect the quality of life in rural California counties. To learn more about RCRC, visit rcrcnet.org.

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: www.boe.ca.gov/sptaxprog/fire_prev_fee.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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