New round of fire fee bills coming

by Michael Gardner, San Diego Union Tribune

A controversial fire prevention fee charged to Californians who live in rural regions defended by Cal Fire enters its second year with a new round of bills going out Friday.

The fee brought in a little less than $77 million the first year, according to a new state accounting of receipts that go through June 28.

When California lawmakers adopted the annual fire fee of $150 per home, they reasoned that those who live in those regions — called “state responsibility areas” — should help cover some of Cal Fire’s costs.

But Cal Fire’s new data shows that 98 out of every 100 of those homes being billed are also located within the boundaries of a local fire protection district or fire department.

Moreover, the statewide fee is only designed to offset prevention programs. By law it cannot be used for firefighters and equipment needed to extinguish blazes.

Case in point: The fire fee cannot be tapped to recover any of the costs associated with fighting the more than 7,000-acre Chariot fire that scorched the Mount Laguna area last week.

“Not one dime of that fire fee went to help Cal Fire fight that fire,” said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose district includes the charred area. “Cal Fire firefighters did a phenomenal job, but this is just an unnecessary hit on residents in unincorporated areas.”

Cal Fire could not immediately provide a detailed accounting of where the fire fee money was spent, except a general list that included “fuel reduction activities, defensible space inspections, fire prevention engineering, emergency evacuation planning, fire prevention education, fire hazard severity mapping, implementation of state and local fire plans and fire-related law enforcement activities such as arson investigation.”

It also cost taxpayers $9.2 million to establish the program and set up call centers to field questions, Cal Fire reported.

Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the fee signed into law in July 2011 was necessary to prevent even deeper reductions in the Cal Fire budget.

“The fee was, in part, a response to the terrible recession and cuts that we were making in every other area of government,” he said. “The question was whether the general fund could afford to pick up the cost of fire services in state responsibility areas.”

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge on Friday is expected to begin taking up a legal challenge filed by some residents with the help of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

The court issue centers on whether the prevention fee should instead be classified as a tax. It’s an important distinction. A tax requires a two-thirds vote; a fee a simple majority.

Unable to muster Republican support for a tax increase to help fund Cal Fire, Gov. Jerry Brown and Democrats put together a package that limited the use of the money to prevention. That way, with an established direct nexus and benefit to the property owner, the levy could be defined as a fee and thus only needed a simple majority vote. General tax increases, such as a broad-based hike to pay for fire protection, are subject to the two-thirds vote rule. If the judge calls it a tax, the state would likely be on the hook to repay what it has collected.

Like the first round, the new bills will be mailed out in stages over the course of several weeks. About 66,000 are expected to arrive in San Diego County mailboxes later this summer, depending on the mailing schedule that is alphabetical by county.

Residents are billed $150 for the year, but qualify for a $35 deduction if they are already part of a fire protection district or local fire department. Cal Fire said 98 percent of the homeowners qualified for the lower $115 annual fee in the first year.

All told, the state sent out 776,000 bills. The state received 90,1000 petitions to be declared exempt, of which 17 percent were approved.