“Don’t close CAL FIRE’s budget on the backs of county residents,” said Amador County Supervisor and Regional Council of Rural Counties (RCRC) Board Member, Richard Forster during a media conference call on Monday, July 30, regarding the State Responsibility Area fire fee bills soon to be arriving in mailboxes up and down the Golden State.
The SRA fire fee is the result of budget bill AB 29X, enacted by the state Legislature and Governor Jerry Brown. It is to be imposed on “habitable structures” which do not include barns, detached garages, sheds, etc.
Bills were expected to start going out this week, alphabetically by county. However, Forster explained on Monday that the billing had been delayed a week.
Regardless of when the bills begin to flow into California resident’s mailboxes is a small issue in the grand scheme of the situation.
“This is not a fee but a tax,” said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. She went on to say that San Diego County is poised to file a lawsuit against those imposing tax, but has to wait to receive the bills, first.
“This is so, so wrong,” Jacob said.
Napa County Supervisor & RCRC Immediate Past President Diane Dillon agreed. “This is not the way to deal with problems that exist,” she said. “Folks are not aware that the bills are coming.”
At the end of last year, CAL FIRE spokesman Daniel Berlant explained to The Sheet that typically CAL FIRE has received 90% of its funding from the state general fund. However, given the state’s current budget crisis, CAL FIRE now needs a more stable funding source. The state’s solution: an SRA “Benefit Fee” for rural residents living near wildland areas.
The new fee will be imposed on more than 825,000 homes and apply to almost all residents of Inyo County, as well as some in Mono County. All owners of “habitable structures,” which include both residential structures and non-residential structures like stores, warehouses, hospitals, libraries, museums, and government buildings, including jails, will pay the $150. Further, residential “habitable structures” with more than one dwelling unit will be charged $25 for each additional unit.
CAL FIRE regulation offers minimal fee exemptions for structures already covered by local fire districts. Property owners within an SRA and also within the boundaries of a local agency that provides fire protection services will only receive a reduction of $35 per habitable structure.
This was described as “double taxation” during Monday’s conference call since many rural areas in the state are so far from outside assistance that local fire departments are really the only chance they would have in an emergency fire situation.
“Volunteer fire departments take care of us, not CAL FIRE,” said one participant on the call.
These areas would be paying for a service they would not be utilizing.
“A fee comes with a service,” Dillon said. Without that service attached, it’s a tax.”
Another issue with the bill is that it is going to be sent to homeowners from July 2011 records. Since many of these homeowners have foreclosed since that time, the bills are going to be sent to people who don’t own the structures anymore.
“This is a potential disaster,” Dillon said.
According to the conference call documentation, California county supervisors and assessors had no role in developing this fee; have no role in collecting the money or enforcing payment; and will not receive any benefit from the payment of this fee.
Neither California counties nor assessors helped in compiling the list of names and addresses of persons for which the “fire fee” is to be imposed. CAL FIRE is responsible for providing the State Board of Equalization with this information.
State Senator Ted Gaines recently stated in his newsletter, “The tax will not provide any more fire protection and will actually make it harder for local fire agencies to raise the money they need to keep people safe. It’s a lose-lose proposition for the people in my district and for anyone concerned with public safety and the rule of law.
“This tax should have been subject to a 2/3 vote in the legislature just like every other tax, but the Democrats called it a fee to get around that requirement,” he continued. “The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association will file a lawsuit disputing the fee’s legality and I hope it gets overturned ASAP.”
In further comment on the tax, Gaines said, “It was, is and always will be a shakedown of rural property owners that takes their money every single year but gives them zero in the way of additional fire safety.”
Visit www.calfirefee.com to see if you live in a “State Responsibility Area” and will be paying this tax. For questions regarding bills, call 888.310.6447.