$150 fire fee bills targeted for some, not all, Auburn-area residents

State is offering a discount for those who already pay a local tax
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - Depending on what side of the border they’re living on, Auburn-area property owners could be in for a sudden shock in coming days when they open up an envelope with a new bill tucked inside. It’s for $150 and some Auburn-area residents will be joining 800,000 Californians who own property in what the state of California considers wildfire country and are liable for a special surcharge. The fee, passed by Democrats in the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, is intended to raise an estimated $84 million in its first year for fire-prevention efforts. The fee will pay for the department’s existing fire-prevention efforts, including thinning brush and trees and clearing around homes. However, it does not go to pay for emergency response or equipment. The annual charge can run as high as $150 for property owners with a single occupied dwelling, although there is a $35 discount for those who already pay a local tax for fire protection. The discount will apply to about 95 percent of rural property owners with a single occupied dwelling, although it’s not enough to quell disgruntlement in the parts of California where the fee will apply. And in Placer County, where urban areas like the city of Auburn are exempted, it means one neighbor is paying while another is not. Jack Kenny, a North Auburn resident whose home was destroyed in the 49 Fire, has rebuilt inside the billing area. It was one of more than 60 lost in the August 2009 blaze in Auburn. And he’s none too happy with the idea of paying the fee. “They can do this?” Kenny asked incredulously. “Without a vote? I’m definitely not for it. I’m retired and on a fixed income.” Bills started going out Monday and will have been issued to more than 825,000 property owners by year’s end. They are being sent to counties in alphabetical order, so residents of Alameda, Alpine and Amador counties will be first to receive them. On the other side of the fee-no fee boundary line, Bowman’s Kenneth Armbruster said that everyone in his neighborhood fears fire sweeping through their property near the American River canyon but he won’t be paying the fee, according to the map he’s seen. That’s all right with Armbruster, who said he hasn’t been following the debate since he found out he was on the other side of the boundary. But Armbruster added that he still thinks that cutbacks could handle the funding void. “If they put the money they waste into this, people wouldn’t have to pay this money,” Armbruster said. Ted Moore, Christian Valley area vineyard owner, said that he’ll be paying the fee, with some hesitation. “It’s a small price to pay,” Moore said. “I live on 6.5 acres and it’s wooded land. About three acres are mowed and the other part is kind of wild. It’s probably not going to benefit me much but could, if it boils down to reducing fire liability. If it means brochures and commercials, though, I’m not as enthusiastic about it,” The fee was imposed on those who own property within the 31 million rural acres covered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a responsibility area that covers about one-third of the state. Fire danger in rural areas is growing more extreme, according to a recent University of California, Merced study. Climate change, development and changes to the landscape may double the fire risk to rural homes over the next 40 years, researchers found. They predict the greatest increase in risk in Northern California’s foothills and mountains, the Associated Press reported. Brown sought the fee mostly to help close the state’s budget deficit, calling it “a fee consistent with the ‘beneficiary pays principle’,” in his signing message. If additional money can be raised and dedicated to Cal Fire, he reasoned, a similar amount could go to other state services that have experienced deep budget cuts. Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire spokesman, said the fee will help prevent more spending cuts for state firefighters. Over the last 18 months, the department has dealt with an $80 million budget cut by hiring 700 fewer seasonal firefighters, closing an air base in Fresno and mothballing five bulldozers and both of its fire engines serving the Lake Tahoe area because it lacked enough firefighters to operate them. Critics have argued that the fee is actually a tax and needs to be approved by two-thirds of the state Legislature rather than a simple majority. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association plans to file a lawsuit as bills go out to have the fee declared unconstitutional. The Associated Press contributed to this report.