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Rural Auburn residents speak out against $150 fire fee

Assembly Bill 1506 could repeal fee
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Placer County residents and officials are reacting to a controversial new $150 fee that will be assessed by the state on rural properties to pay for fire protection. Bills for the new fee could be sent by the end of summer. Assembly Bill 29X1 was passed in June 2011 and mandates that all habitable structures in state responsibility areas pay the fee that will go toward funding fire prevention services through Cal Fire. Some Placer County officials say the bill needs to be repealed or seriously amended to be equitable to rural property owners, while some property owners say they believe the fee is actually a tax that was unjustly imposed upon them. A statewide taxpayers association says it will likely move forward with suing the state over the fee at some point. Rural fire fee could fund fire prevention in Southern California Rui Cunha, assistant director of emergency services in Placer County, said based on a simple estimate Placer County could generate $6 million in revenue from the fee and may see only as much as 10 percent, or $600,000, of that come back to the area to be spent on local fire prevention. He said based upon the areas of most critical need in the state and past experience, he believes the money will go predominately to fire prevention in high-risk areas of Southern California. “You, as a resident of unincorporated Placer County, are writing the check. Most of us, if we have got to write a check, would prefer to see that revenue come back to us in the form of service,” Cunha said. Aside from how the funds could be distributed, Cunha said rural property owners are not the only people who benefit from fire prevention and shouldn’t be singled out to foot the bill for it. Cunha said many of the local fire protection districts will also suffer as a result of the state assessed fee because the only way they can raise more revenue is by asking voters to raise taxes. “It becomes very, very confusing for residents as they are looking at a tax that they vote on, yet they have this fee that is being imposed on them and they are not always understanding the difference between the tax, which they vote on for fire protection, versus this fee which is for fire prevention,” Cunha said. “They just think, ‘Gosh, we are double paying.’” Local fire districts call for funding, too Placer Hills Fire Protection District and North Auburn- Ophir Fire both have initiatives on the June ballot asking voters to raise taxes and fees for fire protection in their service areas. Placer Hills’ Measure E calls for a special tax to maintain the current level of service and equipment and replace essential equipment. North Auburn- Ophir Fire’s Measure D calls for an ordinance increasing direct charges for residential development by $40 per unit, $20 per mobile home, and 4.6 cents per square foot of commercial/industrial development for fire protection, emergency medical services and equipment replacement. Many of these fire agencies have seen declining revenues over the past several years as property taxes have declined, Cunha said. Bob Stearns serves on the board of the Newcastle Fire Protection District. He went to testify in favor of Assembly Bill 1506 at the capitol, which was introduced by Assemblyman Kevin Jefferies (R-Lake Elsinore) to repeal the $150 fee. “It’s unfair to our taxpayers and our residents,” Stearns said. “I believe it was a tax and not a fee, but a lot of other people believe the same thing. It’s obvious that they want to get back some of the money they took from Cal Fire.” Local elected officials, taxpayer association oppose fee Senator Ted Gaines has also been working to advocate for Assembly Bill 1506 and repeal the fire tax. “This $150 fire tax is illegal and unfair – plain and simple,” Gaines said in a press release earlier this month. “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.” Jennifer Montgomery, Placer County District 5 Supervisor, said the state redirected funds usually set aside for Cal Fire to other areas and is now looking for a way to make up the deficit. She said she strongly opposes the fee and believes it should be repealed. “I am pretty appalled that this is being proposed. It basically targets one small group of people that has a higher risk, but it leaves out all the other groups that also have a high risk,” Montgomery said. “It’s kind of like telling people who drive on the freeway that because you drive on the freeway you have a higher potential for an accident. You need to pay $150 to the CHP.” Montgomery said she has been lobbying elected officials to get the fee repealed and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association will also likely bring a lawsuit against the state. Tim Bittle, director of legal affairs for the association, said while the association is likely to sue, it hasn’t decided if it will do that before the first bills go out or after. “Our consensus is that it’s not really a fee, it’s a tax,” Bittle said. “Because it’s a tax it needed a two-thirds vote of each of the legislative houses to pass, which it did not get, so it’s not a valid law.” Bittle said fees are paid in exchange for consumption of materials or services, which many people living in rural areas would never get in exchange for paying the $150 fee if they didn’t have a fire at their home in a given year. One Auburn resident could pay $600 in fees Jim Taylor, who owns Mt. Vernon Winery in Auburn, lives in the state responsibility area and will have to pay the fee. In addition, Taylor said he owns four other properties in rural areas in California, which would bring his projected total bill for the fees to $600. “I don’t mind paying my fair share as long as it goes to our benefit, but I don’t want to pay for Southern California’s share,” Taylor said. “They end with up with our money toward fighting fires, just like our water goes toward feeding them.” Taylor said many of the homes considered to be in rural areas in Auburn are just outside of the city limits and shouldn’t have to pay extra fire fees. He said one solution might be to have each area pay based on the percentage of fires that actually occur in their area. “I’m probably not the only one paying it, so I’m probably not the only one upset,” Taylor said. Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com, or follow her on Twitter @AJ_News.