Ruffalo: Rural firefighting fee just latest taxpayer thugging

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
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There’s a dreary axiom we political junkies know by heart. You know, the one about people love to eat sausages but really shouldn’t watch them being made. Well, judging by the reaction to the recently passed $150 annual fee for rural firefighting efforts, that bit of cased innards appears to be strictly ptomaine. Continuing with the delicatessen metaphor plate: the new law has more holes than cheap Swiss cheese, if you’ll allow a wry observation. The law ostensibly tries to collect $200 million annually, which would put a dent in Cal Fire’s annual $877 million expenditure burned up in fighting blazes in the wildlands. But even Gov. Jerry Brown implied while signing the new law on July 8; state firefighters probably won’t see a dime’s worth of new revenue from this latest thugging of taxpayers. What’s wrong with it? Where to begin? How about with the basics, such as its constitutionality. Local State Sen. Doug LaMalfa says not only is he convinced that the new law is unconstitutional, but various taxpayers organizations — including the Jarvis folks — feel likewise and are willing to take the matter to court. Propositions 218 and 26 require two-thirds votes on new taxes, and calling this a fee won’t help. The courts says if it quacks like a tax, it’s a tax, he said. LaMalfa says, had the proposed budget hit the Senate floor with adequate time to read it fully, it may not have passed. “I know I burned my fingers trying to read each page coming out of the copy machine as we were preparing to vote,” he said. A second problem with the law is what it will do to local fire protection districts. Ian Gow, chief of the Placer Hills Fire Protection District, says his district has a $100 annual assessment “and that pays for (enough) staffing to allow for a paramedic on each engine and an average response time of six-and-a-half minutes, which is very good for a rural department,” he said. “(District) residents are paying good money for the services provided and this new law potentially will have (residents) taxed twice for the same service,” he added. Gow sees another problem for the PHFPD. “The new tax all goes to Ca lFire, so what will happen if the economy forces us to go back to the voters for more money?” he asked. We all know the answer. Taxpayers, especially when boiling blood causes us to see red, have trouble differentiating among which entity is taxing us now. If the state hits us for $150, don’t expect us to pony up another $22 for local efforts, because we already paid a tax. According to 3rd District Supervisor Jim Holmes, that’s precisely the problem being faced in Newcastle. “The board there recently sent out a survey letter to see if residents would support a hike in the local assessment,” he said, adding that the response was generally favorable. “But in light of this new state tax, the Newcastle directors now have decided against asking for the new assessment.” Fifth District Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery says she’s also frustrated by the new law. She already pays four separate firefighting assessments for her home in the Truckee district “and would gladly pay another” if the new money was guaranteed to go to the local district. “But this new law is nothing but a shell game. The money goes to Cal Fire, but will get pulled out of it at the other end,” she insists. Now the good folks residing within the city limits of Auburn won’t have to pay the new tax because it does not affect incorporated cities. Still, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t at some future date. As this column has postulated in the past, legislators are like rust, they never sleep, especially when it comes to dreaming up ways to pick the pockets and purses of taxpayers. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs on Sundays. Reach him at