Opinion

Fourth round of fire fee

Fire Prevention Fee bills for fiscal year 2014-15 were mailed out recently to more than 800,000 rural Californians, many of whom received that bill for the fourth time. About 17,000 of the bills were sent to Eastern Madera County.

“It’s extremely frustrating that a law this wrong continues to take money from the pockets of rural Californians year after year,” said George Runner of the State Board of Equalization, the agency responsible for collecting the funds. “This so-called ‘fee’ was put in place during a budget crisis that no longer exists. The legislature could and should repeal it.”

During 2014-15 budget hearings, Runner urged Gov. Jerry Brown to restore full funding to Cal Fire, and eliminate the confusing and controversial Fire Prevention Fee.

“The Fire Prevention Fee was established during a time of crisis, when the state faced multi-billion budget deficits,” said Runner. “Those budget deficits are gone, but the fire fee remains, much to the chagrin of hundreds of thousands of rural property owners throughout California.”

The Board of Equalization is required by law to mail “Fire Prevention Fee” bills on behalf of Cal Fire each year. In the 2012-13 fiscal year, the Board of Equalization and Cal Fire spent a combined total of more than $17 million to collect $75 million from Fire Fee payers.

“The fire fee continues to place more burdens and costs on Cal Fire and the State Board of Equalization while providing no additional fire protection for Californians – even with the state’s increased firefighting expenses due to dry weather and drought. The fiscally responsible thing to do is eliminate it.”

To protect their eligibility for a refund, property owners should protest every billing by filing a new Petition for Redetermination within 30 days of the billing date. Information on how to appeal is available at calfirefee.com/appeal.

Runner re-affirmed his support for the pending class action lawsuit, as well as a full legislative repeal. Senator Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga) recently introduced SB 198 to repeal the tax.

In addition, Runner is sponsoring legislation to extend the time homeowners have to pay and appeal the Fire Prevention Fee. Two identical measures, AB 203, and SB 25, would increase the payment due date of the Fire Prevention Fee from 30 days from the date of assessment to 60 days.

“The confusing and controversial fire fee is tax policy at its worst,” said Runner. “It should be eliminated entirely, but until then these bills are a step in the right direction. Increasing the payment due date will help lessen the burden of this illegal tax on rural homeowners.”

Due to the rural nature of those being billed, many property owners do not receive their fire fee bills in a timely manner. Although payment plans are available, many on fixed incomes are unable to pay their Fire Prevention Fee by the 30-day deadline.

“Problems with timely mail delivery can be an issue in mountain and rural areas of my Senate District,” said Senator Gaines. “The current deadline does not allow residents in these communities nearly enough time to pay or protest their fire fee bills before they start accruing penalties. I hope my bill will provide some much-needed relief to these homeowners.”

“The current deadline does not provide residents in rural communities nearly enough time to pay or protest their fire fee assessments,” said Assemblyman Obernolte. “Ultimately, I am hopeful that the courts will find this fee illegal and strike it down, but in the meantime this bill will help provide much needed relief to these homeowners.”

NOTE: Elected in November 2010, and re-elected in 2014, George Runner represents more than nine million Californians as a member of the State Board of Equalization. For more information, visit boe.ca.gov/Runner . To appeal the Fire Fee, see calfirefee.com/appeal/.

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