Rural Californians to pay $150 per home for fire fee

Mar 23, 2012

Rural Californians are all fired up over a new fee. The state claims the fee is needed to continue providing fire protection to rural residents. Opponents are calling foul, however, saying it is an illegal and unfair tax that will do more harm than good.

In July 2011, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill X1 29 into law. The law imposes a $150 “fire fee” on rural residents. The fee applies to anyone owning one or more “habitable structures” within the state’s State Responsibility Area (SRA). Funds from the fee go to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

Though permanent regulations have not yet started, emergency regulations—signed by Brown in late January 2012—are currently being implemented. Following the 180-day life of the emergency regulations, a 45-day public comment period will begin.

Fee vs. tax

“The California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) believes it’s a tax,” said Kevin Kester, president of CCA and a rancher from Parkfield, CA, of the fee.

A taxation watchdog group in California, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, is preparing for a lawsuit if the law is not withdrawn before becoming permanent.

In the association’s official letter of objection, filed in December 2011 with California Office of Administrative Law and the State Board of Forestry, the group outlined their two key points: the fire fee is a tax; and as a tax, it failed to receive a two-thirds vote in the legislature as required.

When asked about the likelihood of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association’s threatened litigation, Kester stated he fully anticipates it will come to that.

“It appears this regulation will continue into a permanent form and I fully anticipate legal action. It’s my understanding that when the first billing or invoice is sent to people, [the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association] will act.”

The law itself includes mention of potential challenge as a tax. It cites California Proposition 26 which was passed by voters in 2010 as a source of potential “legal challenges.”

It is estimated 800,000 to 850,000 Californians will be affected by the new law. The $150 fee would apply only for the first residence, with discounted fees being assessed for each additional habitable structure owned.

A $35 discount is also in place for anyone currently living in, and paying into, a regional fire district. Janet Upton, a deputy director with CalFire, pointed out that almost 95 percent of affected residents already pay into their local fire districts and would only have to pay $115. This discount doesn’t mean much to opponents who see the fee as baseless from its beginning. 

What the money from the fee is intended for is uncertain and claims on how it will be used vary widely. The stated rationale for the fee is to offset the rising operation costs on CalFire as demands on its services increase with more people living in rural California. That view is not widely shared, however.

“It is crystal clear from the bill’s language that this is for prevention and education, not fire suppression or more personnel,” said Kester.

Kester, who met with the governor’s office on Wednesday, March 21, said what precisely is going to be done with the money—what it’s going to be used for, how it will be collected, and the general plans for it—is unclear.

“The first five years of collection the money isn’t going to be touched. Where’s that money going to go? We brought that question up with the governor’s office this morning and we didn’t get a good answer. The details are very murky. Everything’s been very secretive so far.”

Upton, however, implied the fee would directly benefit fire suppression activities as well as prevention. She brought up the 2008 wildfire in northern California’s Butte County, which alone cost over $23 million to control, as an example.

“This allows for the extraordinary effort we take in combating wildfires. All the resources we have coming to bear on a fire like [the Butte County fire]; it’s a very costly operation.”

The law itself makes mixed statements on the purpose of the fee, which it calls the “fire prevention fee.” In one section, it states the fee is to “fund fire prevention activities” and says that funds “would be available to Cal- Fire for fire prevention activities,” but in another it states the fee “would fund fire and emergency response efforts in SRAs.”

Opponents have a laundry list of other complaints against the fee. A major complaint is that the fee is being unfairly applied. Another contends the statistics being used to justify the need for the fee are misleading. And a final complaint states the fee would severely damage the fundraising abilities of regional fire districts.

Since only rural Californians are to be fined, many see that as unfair targeting. Supporters of the fee point out that in the past, residents of SRAs have unfairly benefitted from the services of CalFire while all California taxpayers have had to fund them through state taxes.

Upton outlined some benefits to those who live outside of SRAs as well. To Californians living outside of SRAs, better-funded fire prevention activities will result in greater protection of wildlife habitat, air quality and watershed areas, she said.

Fee opponents have also questioned the statistics being used to justify the fee. Not only were the statistics provided by CalFire, they are too all-encompassing for some. For example, many instances listed as a CalFire response reflect contracted dispatch services to regional agencies rather than Cal- Fire actually responding on-scene.

The impact the fee may have on local fire districts is another large sticking point for opponents. Already funds-strapped regional fire districts, which have few income sources and limited fundraising options, will face resistance from residents who must pay the fee when local ballot measures seek tax increases to benefit the districts.

When asked about this, Upton explained that the service areas covered by local fire districts versus Cal- Fire are vastly different. She suggested greater efforts need to be made to educate residents on where responsibilities between the groups extend. The issue of California’s economic problem was also brought up.

“You have to look at the fee through the lens of the current situations in California.

This will provide a stable funding source for our critical services. I can’t stress how important it is to get a stable funding source for fire prevention activities.”

Kester voiced some sympathy for the financial straits of CalFire, but that didn’t temper his opposition to the fee.

“They’ve suffered cutbacks, too, with California’s budget woes. But it adds insult to injury that we’re being taxed, yet none of the money is going to our firefighters or keeping the engines running.”

When asked about the potential impacts the fee will have, Kester spoke in no uncertain terms of its negative affect on Californians and hinted at potential future concerns for ranchers.

“It will have a big impact.

This will be the first time we’ve had our state fire department collecting fees for buildings. And it was inferred that the state might institute a per-acre fee in the future.”

The latter possibility, of fire prevention/protection fees being a pay-per-acre issue in the future in California, would have a tremendous negative impact on California agriculture. Kester agreed that if things went in that direction in the future, it would drive ranchers and farmers from the state.

This fire fee bill is one of a long line of similar ancestors, all of which died in the legislative process. In the most recent attempt, Californian Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suggested adding a fire fee to Californian’s insurance in 2008. The proposal was rejected by the Legislature because too many saw it as a tax. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor