Residents confused, angered upon receipt of fire fee notice
During the past week, Roger Perkins went to his mailbox in North Auburn expecting to receive birthday cards and the usual mailings, but something unusual caught his eye.
Perkins celebrated his 78th birthday on Monday and along with those birthday cards came a one-page advance notice of a $150 fee he will soon be charged for fire-prevention efforts.
"It was a total surprise," Perkins said.
Perkins, who lives in the Riverwoods Subdivision, is one of many North Auburn residents who have received the advance notice in the mail and will soon receive a bill for up to $150. He is one of 800,000 California property owners who will receive bills this year.
Like some other residents, Perkins doesn't feel he should be charged the fee.
"I don't live in a place where there is dry, dead grass around," he said. "This is a subdivision."
The fee was passed by the Legislature last year and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown to raise $84 million in its first year alone for fire-prevention, including thinning brush and trees around homes.
Property owners who own inhabitable structures within the 31 million rural acres covered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have to pay the annual $150 fee. Thirty-five dollars can be knocked off that amount if a property owner already pays fees to a local fire protection district.
Residents who live in incorporated cities, like Auburn, will not have to pay the $150 fee, according to Auburn Fire Chief Mark D'Ambrogi.
That has been the main source of confusion among the phone calls he has gotten from residents recently. Some have gotten the advanced notice and not understood why; others who are covered by the Auburn Fire Protection District haven't gotten one and have called D'Ambrogi wondering when they will receive a bill or a notice when none is on the way.
Those who find out they will have to pay the $150 fee voice another concern.
"I think the biggest question I've been asked is ‘what is the money going to be used for?'" D'Ambrogi said. "Many of the folks already pay some sort of fee already and a lot of them say they don't have a problem with paying if they're getting more services, but it's difficult to pinpoint what they are actually getting for the fee."
Cal Fire Chief Brad Harris said residents with questions can either go to www.firepreventionfee.org or call (888) 310-6447. Residents can also file petitions to having to pay the fee, including if their property is not in the state responsibility area, if the resident was charged for owning more structures than they actually own or if the resident did not receive the $35 break for paying local fire protection fees.
The fire fee is set to pay for fire prevention efforts, like brush clearance near residential areas and along roadways, along with improving forest health so forests can endure wildfires, according to the website.
Ian Gow, fire chief of the Placer Hills Fire Protection District, said he has had residents call who are both confused and angered by the advance notice.
"I've had half a dozen people at least ask me about it," Gow said. "The main question is why they are getting another bill for fire service when they already pay money to the local fire department and the second question is ‘what happens if I don't pay it and how do I protest it?'"
Harris said if residents file a petition to the fire fee and it is approved they will receive a full refund. If the fire prevention fee isn't paid within 30 days of receiving the initial bill, a late fee will be added to it.
Donna McCloskey, who has lived in North Auburn since she lost her home in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, said she doesn't have a problem with paying the $150, but rather that only some residents have to pay it and that it was not passed by voters.
"I really enjoy living here, but the things the Legislature gets away with make it not so nice," McCloskey said. "I stopped calling it a fee a long time ago. It's a selective fire tax."
McCloskey also said she is unsure about what benefit she will receive from paying the $150 because she thinks property owners should be responsible for maintaining their own land, including any fire safety issues.
"I lost a house to Hurricane Katrina before I moved here, so I know what it is like to lose everything you own," she said. "I just feel like the owners are responsible for their property."
Sen. Ted Gaines has circulated a memo titled "How to fight the fire tax" encouraging residents to pay the fire fee, but write "paid under protest" in the memo line of checks. He also gives praise to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which recently filed a lawsuit in Sacramento County Superior Court to gain refunds for those who have paid the fire fee and denies that it was passed legally.
Perkins said he intends on paying the fire fee, but including "paid under protest" on the memo line of his check.
"There's a lot of people who are pretty upset about this," Perkins said. "I don't want them putting a lein on our house because of this stupid thing."
Contact Amber Marra at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.