Fire fee collection halted, heated opposition continues

Fire fee collection halted, heated opposition continues
The collections for wildfire fees issued by Cal Fire is being postponed following thousands of complaints over the fees legality from state residents. The fees are supposed to be used for fire prevention activities. Above, a helicopter prepares to drop water on flames during the Witch Creek Fire in October 2007. Photo by Daniel Knighton

RANCHO SANTA FE — The collection of fire prevention fees for rural areas of California, including Rancho Santa Fe, has been postponed this year due to thousands of complaints challenging its billing and legality. 

Several legislative bills aiming to eliminate or replace the fee have been presented to state Senate and Assembly committees as well.

Authorized by a budget bill in 2011, property owners in rural areas where the state is financially responsible for fire protection are required to pay an annual fee. The fee is intended to pay for fire prevention measures carried out by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, referred to as Cal Fire.

Late last year, more than 100,800 property owners in San Diego County were billed as much as $150 per habitable structure.

Local officials claim that these property owners already pay for fire protection from Cal Fire and local agencies, including the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, through property taxes and other fees.

“I continue to oppose the $150-a-year tax because homeowners already pay for fire protection,” said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob in a recent statement. “What the state needs to do instead is prioritize public safety and make sure Cal Fire is adequately funded, without putting additional burdens on taxpayers.”

Jacob has encouraged billed county residents to pay the fee but petition for reconsideration and contact their local state representatives to oppose the fee.

Cal Fire has received more than 87,000 petitions for reconsideration after billing more than 825,000 California homeowners last year.

The agency has not yet determined when, or if, the collection of the fire fee will resume this year.

The Assembly Committee on Natural Resources passed two bills, presented by Republican Assemblymen Mike Morrell and Tim Donnelly, to repeal the fire fees on April 15.

The two bills claim that the fee is actually a tax and as such would require a two-thirds vote. Yet the fee was approved only with a majority vote in 2011.

The bills will be submitted to the Assembly Appropriations Committee next.

Democrat Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, chair of the Natural Resources Committee, is in the process of putting forward a bill that would replace the fire fee with a Disaster Management, Preparedness and Assistance Fund. The fund would establish a 4.8 percent surcharge on all property insurance policies for all California residents.

Senator Ted Gaines’ bill to repeal the fire fee failed in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water on April 9.

Additionally, the Howard Jarvis Tax Association is in the process of suing the state, also claiming that the fee is an illegal tax.

The fee is intended for Cal Fire activities including brush clearance and emergency evacuation planning. California’s General Fund once covered these activities, but is no longer able to do so because of lack of funds.

As a fee and not a tax, the revenue from the fire fee is required by law to directly support the property areas that were charged.

Yet according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, the governor’s budget proposed using the funds for activities outside of these areas, which would be illegal.

In January, the LA Times revealed that Cal Fire set aside $3.6 million with a nonprofit instead of depositing the funds into the state’s general fund as required. Cal Fire moved the money from the nonprofit after being questioned about the fund’s legality.


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