By RANDY COLLINS AND DAN NORTHERN
Randy Collins is president of the Sonoma County Fire Chiefs Association. Dan Northern is vice president of the association and chief of the Forestville Fire District.
When the state budget was approved by the Legislature earlier this year, one of the lesser known outcomes was the inclusion of a Fire Prevention Benefit Fee to be imposed on all property owners with “habitable” structures on parcels within Cal Fire jurisdiction.
Given that most properties outside of the nine incorporated cities in Sonoma County lie within these areas — known as “state responsibility areas” — chances are, if you don’t live in a city, this fee will apply to you. As an organization that represents almost every fire agency in Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Fire Chiefs Association feels it is important to share the following concerns about this fee.
Landowners pay twice in these state responsibility areas. Most of the SRA in Sonoma County is served by a fire district or volunteer fire company that provides year-round fire suppression as well as prevention services such as mapping, pre-fire planning and public education to their SRA constituents.
Although Cal Fire is an excellent organization, owners of parcels within an established district should not be expected to incur additional costs for services they are already receiving — unless they are willing to vote for an increase in their assessment. It also creates an inequity in that high fire areas within incorporated cities that receive a Cal Fire response through mutual aid agreements (such as Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Cloverdale) would continue to receive a response at no cost.
This fee is a threat to local fire districts. Many existing districts and volunteer fire companies are in desperate need of funding to improve or maintain current service levels. With most agencies having seen growth in demand for service and struggling with under-funded budgets, quite often the only avenue is through the implementation of benefit assessments. This new fee would have a devastating effect on any attempt by a local jurisdiction to move forward with a basic funding plan.
Ironically, this also stands to diminish the ability of these agencies to provide mutual aid throughout the county as well as the state, further impacting fire protection in the county and the state’s master mutual aid system.
Does this plan include too little funding for Cal Fire? Since homeowners in these areas are already required by law to maintain a defensible space around their homes (and many do), it is difficult to envision what the direct benefit will be for those homeowners who are charged the fee.
While the Board of Forestry provides exemptions for local prevention efforts, these efforts have had the unintended consequence of significantly reducing the amount needed to backfill the monies that were removed from the Cal Fire budget. Given these revised projections, the current Cal Fire budget shortfall stands at approximately $50 million.
As every firefighter in California knows, most large conflagrations occur due to significant climatic conditions such as droughts combined with strong wind events and low relative humidity. As adopted, a fee that is designated to fund fire prevention activities will do little to prevent or offset the operational costs of controlling these fires.
For decades, everyone in California has benefited from the shared firefighting efforts of local fire agencies, and Cal Fire which has developed into a master mutual-aid system and has been held up as a model to the rest of the nation. If it is the goal of the Legislature to provide adequate funding for fire protection in the state, it is incumbent that an equitable system is devised that benefits all who contribute to this effort.
We encourage you to contact the governor and your state representatives and share your concerns regarding this new fee.