REGION — The State Board of Equalization has resumed billing about 800,000 California property owners, thousands of which live in San Diego, for a fire prevention fee that some legal and legislative groups consider illegal.
The fire prevention fee charges Californians $150 annually for each habitable structure standing in the State’s Responsibility Area (SRA), which is rural areas where the state is responsible for paying for wildfire prevention and suppression. Fees for structures in the SRA that are covered by a local fire protection agency are reduced to $115.
The fee is intended to finance fire prevention services carried out by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. These services include brush clearing and forest health activities.
With the fee passed in 2011 by Assembly Bill X1 29, the State Board of Equalization first billed property owners for fiscal year 2011-12 starting in August 2012.
But the State Board of Equalization halted the billing process for fiscal year 2012-13 in March 2013 due to legislative and legal challenges to the fire prevention fee’s legality and the thousands of appeals submitted by property owners charged with the fee.
With the legislative and legal efforts failing to modify or repeal the fee thus far, Cal Fire ordered the Board to resume the collection of the fees, according to a press release from the State Board of Equalization on July 2.
“We are required to (collect the fee) by law. So nothing has changed since the initial implementation of the fee,” said Cal Fire spokesperson Dennis Mathisen.
About 66,000 property owners in San Diego County will be billed for the fee this year, according to Mathisen.
Much of the land in the SRA in San Diego County is in Rancho Santa Fe, where residents already pay six percent of their property tax for protection from the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District.
Other areas in North County being charged the fee include unincorporated parts of Escondido and Ramona.
Since the fire prevention fee was first issued, San Diego Board of Supervisors has argued against it because the county already pays for fire protection in rural areas and that there is no guarantee that the money collected from the county will be spent on fire prevention work in San Diego.
San Diego pays about $15.5 million annually for fire protection, $10.2 million of which is contracted with Cal Fire, according to Steve Schmidt, Supervisor Diane Jacob’s communications advisor.
Cal Fire did not respond to Jacob’s request to exempt the county from the fee on those grounds.
Currently, Assemblymen Mike Morrell’s and Tim Donnelly’s bills to repeal the fire prevention fee, AB 124 and AB 23, remain in the Assembly Committee on Appropriations.
Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro’s AB 468 seeks to replace the fire fee with 4.8 percent charge on all property insurance policies throughout the state and remains in the Assembly on Natural Resources.
The Howard Jarvis Tax Association (HJTA) is in the process of suing Cal Fire and the State Board of Equalization based on the claim that the fee is an illegal tax. The HJTA aspires to have the fee repealed and have the state refund property owners for the fire fees collected.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Eugene L. Balonon, who is hearing the case, ruled this month that the matter can proceed as a class action lawsuit.
Mathisen said that for the fiscal year 2011-12 billing cycle, 105,000 property owners statewide petitioned against the fee. About 15,000 successfully appealed, primarily on the grounds of the actual numbers of habitable structures and structures’ ownership.
Bills will be sent out to property owners in the San Diego region from Sept. 25 to Oct. 4, according to the State Board of Equalization.
Property owners can appeal the fee by petitioning Cal Fire for redetermination.