$150 fire fee fight gears up again in state Legislature
Fighting the fee
According to a Nov. 23 count released by state Board of Equalization member George Runner on a Website he has established opposed to the fee, 643,510 bills had been mailed out and 44,138 appeals had been filed. Cal Fire is responsible for appeals and 1,970 had been granted while 11,135 had been denied. The total number of unpaid fire-fee bills stood at 150,671, according to Board of Equalization statistics.
AUBURN CA - State Sen. Ted Gaines is leading legislative Republicans and, he hopes, some Democrats, in launching a bill this week in the Assembly to repeal a $150 rural fire fee.
Gaines, R-Rocklin, introduced legislation Monday that attempts to repeal what he describes as a “tax” rather than a fee.
The bill would reverse a fiscal maneuver by Gov. Jerry Brown to raise $89 million by charging rural property owners a $150 fee for fire-prevention services as part of the 2011-12 budget. Democrats in the Legislature also supported the charge but Republicans refused to back it.
This fall, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association entered the fray and initiated a class-action lawsuit against the fire fee. Gaines supports the court action.
Gaines said Wednesday that while he’s fighting against the fee, constituents should pay the bill rather than wait out any legislative action.
“They need to pay it,” Gaines said. “We’re advising that because you don’t want the Board of Equalization on your back with fines and assessments monthly.”
Daniel Berlant, spokesman for Cal Fire, said Wednesday that the department has received more than 50,000 “petitions for redetermination” that could lower bills or even cancel them out.
“But most have the reasoning that it’s an illegal tax and they shouldn’t have to pay,” Berlant said. “That’s not something we can fix.”
Berlant said that Cal Fire has no plans to delay any programs paid for with the $89 million in case the fee is repealed.
“A number of bills were introduced (on a fire fee repeal) in the past year that have not passed,” Berlant said. “Unless the Legislature decides on a change, we will implement the bill as written.”
Gaines, a Rocklin resident, said he isn’t personally in an area that is billed the $150.
“This $150 fire tax is illegal and unfair,” Gaines said in a statement issued after Monday’s bill introduction. “Many rural property owners already pay local fire agencies for protection so it is clearly double-taxation and it is being dumped on the backs of rural Californians when the state has 11 percent unemployment and families are struggling just to make ends meet.”
Gaines, whose district includes rural eastern areas of Placer, El Dorado and Nevada counties, said fee-targeted areas are located in state-responsibility areas designated by Cal Fire, even though their property taxes already contribute to service contracts that counties have with the state. Auburn is incorporated and residents within city limits don’t pay the fee.
Gaines said his rural 1st Senate District includes about 25 percent of the 800,000 properties subject to the fee around the state.
“We’ll see if we can get more bipartisan support,” Gaines said. “Every time this comes back, there is more support on the other side of the aisle.”
Berlant said that it’s important to understand that the $89 million isn’t earmarked for new services but, instead, guarantees that current fire prevention activities and services are continued.
The shaded fuel break work in the Auburn dam area and Robie Point, outside Auburn, are two local examples, he said.
“The fees provide a stable funding source that, with budget cuts, could be reduced,” Berlant said.
Prevention work can provide considerable savings over the cost for fire response in the event of a wildfire, he said.
The new bill follows Gaines’ failed attempt last summer to place a measure on the November election ballot to repeal the fire fee.
Gaines said he will stand with legislative Republicans and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association to fight the fee in every way.