Mono’s state senator wants repeal of rural fire fee
The ink from Governor Jerry Brown’s pen had barely dried on ABX1 29, the rural fire protection fee, when it set off a firestorm of controversy. Mono County’s State Senator Ted Gaines (R-Roseville) is one lawmaker who spontaneously combusted over the law. According to recent news reports, Gaines filed referendum papers Wednesday, July 20, beginning a process that could allow voters to overturn ABX1 29, which could cost as many as 860,000 homeowners in unincorporated areas of the state serviced by Cal Fire as much as $150 per year for state fire prevention services.
Part of the FY 2011-2012 budget package, ABX1 29 passed with only Democratic support. (Not a single Republican legislator voted for the budget.) The fee would apply to residents with homes outside city boundaries or in federally protected areas. The state hopes the fee will rake in roughly $50 million in revenues.
Gaines isn’t having any of it. He intends to place a referendum on the June 2012 ballot to overturn the fees, which he and other opponents of the fee say forces many rural residents to pay twice for the same service.
“Counties negotiate with CalFire for fire services within their county. Those individuals or taxpayers are paying into the treasury and the counties that are helping fund those contracts,” Gaines explained. “To come back and ask for another $150 tax is really a form of double taxation.”
Gaines needs to get half a million signatures in the next 100 days to qualify the referendum that would overturn the fire fee for the June election. He says the California Republican Party and fellow Republican lawmakers have already committed to helping him gather signatures.
Lawsuits aim to hose fire fee
Mono and Inyo residents who could be particularly affected by ABX1 29 might not be terribly surprised to learn that legal challenges to the bill are already in the works.
Earlier this month, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors said it’s exploring a lawsuit against the controversial bill. Supervisor Neil Derry, a particularly harsh critic, has called the fee an illegal tax. Derry commented to California County News that, “Over the last couple of years, Californians have expressed their opposition to higher taxes and attempts to hide tax increases in the name of fee increases. My constituents believe they are being taxed by the state for a service they are already paying for at the local level and that the state will simply use this money to fund other services.” Derry also noted that the bill was particularly frustrating in light of the news that the state would no longer fund an air supertanker program that fights wildfires through airdrops.
Critics of ABX1 29 include property owners in regions of the state where residents already assess themselves to ensure they are covered by local fire services, so they argue the bill will amount to double taxation.
A news release from San Bernardino noted that, “The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors authorized legal counsel to investigate and pursue legal remedies against the state in response to the recent passage and signing of Assembly Bill X1-29 by Governor Jerry Brown.”
County governments are reportedly being joined in the fight by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which has also issued threats to take the fee to court, saying it’s a form of taxation and therefore needs a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature to become law, a figure it clearly fell short of in the budget vote.
Long Valley Fire Chief Fred Stump said that locally Mono residents in State Responsibility Areas (SRA) don’t receive fire protection services, and never have. CalFire, he said, provides those types of services “somewhere,” but not in Mono County. As he recalled, more than 20 years ago, the state made an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management, under which all SRA land was transferred to the BLM. Fire prevention services were supposed to be part of the deal, but those have historically remained unfulfilled, except for certain summer home tracts and other permit holders, such as Convict Lake.
Fire departments, he said, may have to go back to taxpayers for revenue enhancement, which the county doesn’t want to have to do, and selling it could be tough with a $150 fire fee. Stump added that none of the rural fire fee will go to the local districts, and added that there are no plans to transfer any money to them. Further, he indicated that the fee is dedicated to prevention, not protection. CalFire does service an area just below Swall Meadows and Round Valley out of that fire station. The Fire District Association of California and Regional Council of Rural Counties have both opposed the bill and urged Gov. Brown to veto the bill.
Gaines represents Alpine, Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Lassen, Modoc, Mono, Plumas and Sierra counties, and portions of Nevada, Placer and Sacramento counties. –Additional Sources: California County News, Highland News