A lawsuit that contends an illegal tax was disguised as a yearly fire prevention fee has made a significant step in the Supreme Court of California, proponents said.
In a ruling Jan. 22, later finalized by Judge Shelleyanne W. L. Chang, plaintiffs of the class action suit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) can begin notifying participants about their inclusion in the litigation.
Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the HJTA, said the ruling indicates the lawsuit can move forward after being delayed since its initial filing in 2012.
“It finally opens the door to move forward to trial,” Vosburgh said. “This is one of those things where the state continued to file motions challenging the ability for us to represent all these taxpayers.”
Plaintiffs include an estimated 12,000 Californians who have filed written appeals of the state fire fee, which was enacted in a 2011 special session of the Legislature as Assembly Bill 29.
The fee was designed for statewide fire prevention activities, such as clearing vegetation and inspecting defensible spaces or homes, along with other programs.
But the HJTA lawsuit claims the fee was created as a tax, without a 2/3 approval vote required by the Legislature, as it offers no additional firefighting services by replacing fire prevention funds that were cut during the state’s fiscal crisis.
“It doesn’t even go to help fight fires where people live,” said George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization which spent $8.9 million in collecting some $300 million from the fee last June. “I think people’s attitudes would be a lot different if the money they gave up was actually going to firefighters, helicopters, things like that.”
The lawsuit seeks to eliminate the fee and offer refunds to all who filed their appeals against it.
Lorice Strem, legal secretary for HJTA, said those who haven’t protested the fee can still do so within 30 days of receiving their bill.
If the lawsuit wins in court, she said the refund would only apply to years where property owners filed their appeals, also known as a “Petition for Redetermination.”
“When we first started the lawsuit we believed everyone should get a refund for every year,” Strem said. “But the court said no. So it looks like right now only the people we represent, who filed petitions while paying their fees, would get the refunds from the state.”
Strem and Vosburgh suggested everyone pay their fees on time, but add an appeal with their bill to be included, or continue inclusion in the lawsuit. The necessary forms, the notice of class action, and more details can be found at firetaxprotest.org under the “Refund” tab.
Litigation is in its initial stages before trial, Strem said, and there was no estimated date on when its proceedings will begin to take shape in court.
HJTA will use newspapers, the Internet, and email notices to inform those who have appealed the fee they are part of a class action suit. Physical mail was determined to be too costly, Strem said.
Should the state lose the lawsuit, Runner said after refunds it’s likely the state will keep any remaining money for fire prevention services.
Mountain Area effects
The fee, $117.33 a year for most habitable structures, is paid by an estimated 850,000 property owners who fall under the mostly rural “State Responsibility Area,” or SRA. That includes much of the Mountain Area around Oakhurst, Bass Lake, North Fork, and stretches south past Millerton Lake.
A map of the SRA can be seen at www.firepreventionfee.org/sraviewer_launch.php.
Recently, the fee has begun being distributed to the Mountain Area and other communities.
In Madera County, around $250,000 has been allocated to removed dead or dying trees in Bass Lake, to the North Fork Biomass Disposal Facility for improvements in processing operations, and to the Timberview Area Firewise Improvement Council for a wood chipper and other work.
A list of grant recipients is available at http://bit.ly/1PSAuJG (capitalization necessary).