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Another View: New fee doesn?t pay for prevention, response

Another View
By: Jennifer Montgomery, guest columnist
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While the July 15 opinion piece in the Auburn Journal (Our View: "Seeing fire crews in action money well spent") is 100 percent correct in stating these are dollars well spent and is a well-deserved thank you to the many emergency responders to the Robbers Fire, the last sentence (“We hope as Cal Fire begins to collect its controversial $150 rural fee from residents — a fee that faces a potential court battle — that money goes toward the on-the-ground resources that help protect businesses, residents and their homes) demonstrates a misunderstanding of the new $150 state fire fee.
The State Responsibility Area (SRA) fee will not go to “the men and women in gear fighting the fire on the front lines in extreme heat, organizing a plan of attack at the command post, dropping retardant and water from above, dispatchers helping coordinate and more.” These SRA dollars will not augment existing Cal Fire suppression dollars. The SRA fee merely replaces dollars taken from the State General Fund contribution to Cal Fire’s budget.
What does that mean? It means that the Legislature and the Governor agreed that beginning in 2012/13 they would defund the approximately $80 million allocated to Cal Fire through the state general fund and replace it with a like amount generated through the new SRA fee. This is nothing but a shell game—and one that Cal Fire had nothing to do with to its credit.
The $150 bill for the SRA fee will show up in the mailboxes of residents of the unincorporated county soon, courtesy of the State Board of Equalization. That fee—to be perfectly clear—will not go to fire response, but to “prevention”—a great intent—but how exactly will that be accomplished? The bottom line is it won’t since these dollars only replace dollars removed from the General Fund contribution to Cal Fire. Cutting dollars from one source and replacing them with this new fee does not add a penny to the Cal Fire budget and, in fact in this instance, limits Cal Fire’s ability to use those dollars for response to fires. These dollars are restricted to “prevention” activities per the legislative language.
But prevention is good right? Absolutely, if these dollars actually created an opportunity for additional prevention measures— but these dollars will not create any new ability to do the prevention work that is clearly required in our wildlands. Cal Fire’s budget has not increased one penny under this proposal and, without increased dollars for both prevention and suppression, we will continue to see fires like the Robbers Fire that will cost our state and us more as suppression costs continue to rise.
Perhaps most disappointing with this new fee is the fact that a substantial amount of the SRA fee will go to overhead costs at the Board of Equalization just to pay for the new program. It is estimated that 10-12 percent of the fee will go to support the billing, mailing and collection of the new fee—so those dollars will not end up at Cal Fire for prevention or suppression.
We all understand that living in the wildland/urban interface has costs and creates higher risks for ourselves and first responders—this fee is not the answer to that. Cal Fire needs a real and sustainable budget—one that supports improved prevention and response activities. In this case, “an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure”—it’s just a pity this fee does not provide that ounce of prevention.
Jennifer Montgomery is the chair of the Placer County Board of Supervisors. She represents District 5, which includes Auburn, Meadow Vista, Applegate, Colfax, Emigrant Gap, Kings Beach and Tahoe City.