If you received a bill for “rural fire fees,” you still have to pay it, but perhaps not for much longer if State Senator Ted Gaines has his way.
Gaines (R–Rocklin) recently stated he is backing the class action lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) against what he deems is an “illegal fire tax” on many rural property owners.
“I attempted to fight the fire tax through a referendum and legislation and am pleased to see the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association challenging it in court. I encourage everyone who might get stuck paying this phony fee to get in the arena and fight it too,” Gaines announced in his recent newsletter. “The answer to fire protection in California is not illegal taxes, but budgets that invest in core government services that protect every citizen in the state … rural, urban and suburban.”
The class action complaint, filed in Sacramento Superior Court, seeks to overturn the fire fee, which costs rural property owners in State Responsibility Areas an additional $150 per year for each habitable structure on their property. The class action names plaintiffs who represent a cross-section of the roughly 825,000 property owners subject to the new fee.
The heart of the dispute and legal battle comes down to whether the assessment should be classified as a fee or a tax. Since the state pushed it forward as a fee, it only required a majority vote for approval. When voters approved Proposition 26 in 2010, it gave the Legislature the ability to use a simple majority to pass fees that pay for services, but the lawsuit argues that the assessment has incorrectly been called a fee rather than a tax.
Lawmakers insist residential development in rural areas raises the cost and difficulty of battling wildfires, and means people who live in those zones benefit disproportionately from taxes paid for state fire suppression. The investment is needed to inhibit costly fires and make them less expensive to fight.
Critics have argued that the fee amounts to double-taxation since rural homeowners who already live in a fire district are assessed for the service and the $150 state fee comes on top of what they pay locally. To address this criticism, the state has implemented a $35 credit.
The HJTA complaint was filed against the California Department of Forestry and the Board of Equalization, as the two agencies responsible for identifying owners of the parcels subject to the new tax and collecting the tax, respectively.
To be eligible for a refund, property owners must first pay their bill, and then file a protest with the State. HJTA has established a website that shows how to protest the fee and provides the necessary forms. Property owners can also sign up for free e-mail bulletins that will keep them informed of the progress of the class action suit. For more information visit www.FireTaxProtest.org.
Billing issues surface
According to a report in California County News, the process of billing those SRA property owners hasn’t exactly gone smoothly for the state Board of Equalization (BOE), which has been responsible for mailing out the bills. Many owners have mistakenly been double billed, while others have been billed for structures that no longer exist.
In another error, the bills created a real headache for a Santa Rosa man who received hundreds of phone calls because the BOE forgot to include the number “1” before a toll free number about appealing the fee. Consequently, without the “1” before the toll free 888 area code, hundreds of angry people ended up calling the Santa Rosa resident to complain about the fee because the calls went to his cell phone. The man wrongfully inundated with calls described the billing as a “fiasco.”
According to Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton, the billing process and collection of the fees have hit some “bumps in the road,” because multiple sources of data were used, which has created some overlap. “This is the first time this process has been undertaken,” Upton told California County News. “We expected to have to do some fine tuning, which we’re doing. We are diligently working on correcting, so it does not happen in the future.”
The billing snafus have also found their way to Mammoth Lakes. According to Mammoth Lakes Fire Department Fire Marshal Thom Heller, the state sent bills to all residences on U.S. Forest Service land within the Town of Mammoth Lakes. The problem there is that Mammoth is a Local Responsibility Area, not under the state’s jurisdiction. The state is now having to send apology letters to those residents saying they can disregard the bills and don’t have to pay them.