WatchSonoma Watch

State ready to bill rural fire fee



In a move many fire officials say penalizes rural fire districts and the people they serve, the state is about to begin billing more than 825,000 residents a new

Cal Fire firefighters Jason Hill, and Noah Vanderzee work to put out a brush fire in Petaluma in 2011. (PD FILE)

$150-a-year fee for Cal Fire services.

The fee is part of a year-old legislative move to offset $80 million in Cal Fire revenue cuts over the past 18 months, shifting some of the burden for wildfire suppression onto those who live in wildland areas and creating a more stable funding source.

Lawmakers say residential development in rural areas raises the cost and difficulty of battling wildfires and means people who live in those zones benefit disproportionately from taxes paid for state fire suppression.

But critics, including the Sonoma and Marin county fire chiefs associations, say the fee unfairly penalizes those who already pay rural fire protection district fees, even though they qualify for a $35 discount.

Opponents also argue that the fee is a tax that requires two-thirds voter approval.

And they point out that while the state fee is based on the cost of fighting fires, the proceeds are earmarked for prevention efforts such as brush clearance, forest health and defensible space around structures.

“This is an additional tax for fire services that doesn’t support the day-to-day operations of the fire districts,” Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Aston said. “It’s not coming back to help Cal Fire staff more fire stations or keep Cal Fire staffed up during winter time.”

The investment is needed, state officials said, to inhibit costly fires and make them less expensive to fight.

“This fee is essential so we can continue to provide the needed fire prevention services to help prevent our state’s largest and most damaging wildfires,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. He noted the cost to taxpayers for fighting wildfires was an estimated $131 million for the fiscal year that ended in July.

The state Board of Equalization will begin sending out more than a half-million advance fee notices starting today. In Sonoma County, the owners of 26,697 homes are affected. Mendocino County has 17,867; Lake County has 15,841.

The bills will start going out county by county in alphabetical order beginning next week, a process expected to extend into December, Board of Equalization personnel said.

An estimated 95 percent of those affected qualify for a $35 discount, “so most registrants will only receive a bill for $115 dollars,” Cal Fire spokesman Berlant said.

The total effort is expected to raise about $84 million in the first round for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. The collection was delayed by policy decisions and administrative actions needed to put the legislature’s plan into practice, Berlant said.

Collection for the 2012 fiscal year should begin early next year, with billing eventually catching up so the bills go out at the start of each calendar year, he said.

For Rancho Adobe Fire District Chief Frank Treanor, whose fire crews cover Cotati, Penngrove and rural Petaluma, the timing is challenging.

After paring his spending because of declining property tax revenue, the district still closed the fiscal year $277,000 in the hole, Treanor said.

Under his urging, the district board just approved a November ballot measure asking voters to approve a $60-a-year parcel tax for the next eight years.

That would be in addition to a special tax unchanged for 20 years that costs the average homeowner $40 a year for fire service.

The proceeds would go to replace decades-old firefighting equipment at an estimated cost of $1.2 million and to cover continuing deficits during these tough fiscal times, Treanor said.

But voters just billed for Cal Fire services may not understand that none of that goes to Rancho Adobe, he said.

“It’s really bad business, and it’s especially bad business for me, because it makes it very difficult for me to manage the assets here, with boots on the ground, and to manage the fire services and medical services to people in the districts,” he said.

Others argue that the State Responsibility Area Fee, which was approved in concept by the legislature and established at the maximum $150 allowed by a vote of the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, is in fact a tax, thus requiring voter approval.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association has begun collecting names of those who want to challenge the fee in court — a process that requires first that they pay the bill, then request a refund and, if denied, file suit, association attorney Tim Bittle said.

“We have lots and lots of people who want to be represented in refund claims,” Bittle said.

A letter drafted to represent opposition to the fee by associations representing the Sonoma and Marin fire chiefs echoed concerns about the failure of lawmakers to seek voter approval.

“What justification is there that the state levies a tax, yet the local fire department shoulders the day-to-day cost of providing the service?” the chiefs said.

George Gentry, executive officer of the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, said state officials are aware of opposition and anticipates multiple lawsuits.

“The board,” Gentry said, “has been getting a lot of ‘input,’ shall we say, on the SRA rules. So we know there’s a lot of consternation.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

10 Responses to “State ready to bill rural fire fee”

  1. Don Pauli says:

    The “Fire Prevention Fee” is a tax, call it a bugger and it’s still a tax. BS, protest by not paying? Maybe. Pay it in protest.
    All the bastards in Sacto. want is more money. Choke on it.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  2. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Not one of you who criticized me talk about the benefit prop 13 gave to big corporate California. Not one of you has a real clue what Jarvis’s Prop 13 was REALLY ABOUT. WE PAY MORE NOW in fees, fines, parcel taxes, gasoline taxes, sales taxes (why do you think we have all these malls with more planned?), etc than if the property taxes were equalized among all personal property owners and the Corporations didn’t have the huge loopholes Prop 13 gave them. New home buyers take the brunt of the personal property taxes. Those taxes we all pay, including those who don’t pay income taxes, takes a HUGE amount of our income AND IT REGRESSIVE TAXATION hitting the lower and middle income people the hardest. So what you don’t pay in property tax now you pay in these regressive taxes. WE STILL PAY A HUGE AMOUNT IN TAXES.
    We should have gotten a break on our property taxes. But Prop 13 WASN’T IT. It just took money away from the counties and cities who now make it up with all kinds of other “taxes” for everything we do. It shifted the property tax burdon OVER TIME from corporations to homeowners.

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  3. Skippy says:

    “Mockingbird blames Prop 13 for the ills of California governmental idiots.”

    That’s because Prop 13 blocks her grubby little hands from your wallet.
    Collectivists hate that worst of all!
    How dare you try to reduce the big bite Big Govt takes from your life?
    Don’t you know there are people with less than you?
    They have a human right to your money!

    This entire Presidential campaign will be based on BHO’s insistence that the rich just want to screw you every day in every way.
    Class warfare has worked pretty well for Democrats so far.
    Once 51% of the voters get checks from Big Govt, it’s game over; lights out; welcome to Cuba.
    Republicans work for a living.
    Democrats vote for a living.

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  4. Snarky says:

    Mockingbird blames Prop 13 for the ills of California governmental idiots.

    Lets recall:

    Prop 13 was drafted by the voters.
    Prop 13 was put onto the ballot by voters.
    Prop 13 was passed in the 1978 by voters.
    Prop 13 was upheld by the US Supreme Court.

    Prop 13 LIMITS increases in property tax to no more than 2% per year.

    Prop 13 REQUIRES a reduction in property taxes when your property value falls.

    Its all very predictable. To everyone but government bureaucrats, that is. :)
    That is why the US Supreme Court upheld it as fully constitutional.

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  5. Skippy says:

    “But those old millionaires who still live in the same house they bought in the 1970′s…”

    …would be well over 100 now.
    Is class/wealth warfare all you got?
    Is whining about things other people own all you do?
    Have you ever been satisfied with what you have?

    Be very careful about whom you demonize.
    Nasty actions have nasty consequences.

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  6. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Brought directly to the people of California because of Prop 13. More fees for everything, parcel taxes, bonds, fines for traffic and parking infractions through the roof, and on, and on, and on.

    Business really made out with Prop 13. They used to pay more property taxes over all than homeowners. ANYTHING THAT COMES FROM JARVIS SHOULD BE SUSPECT BY ANY WORKING FAMILY WHEN THEY VOTE. Now homeowners pay SIGNIFICANTLY more of property taxes with the brunt coming from new buyers. And most people are clueless about it. Yes, old people shouldn’t be taxed out of their homes. But those old millionaires who still live in the same house they bought in the 1970′s pay a fraction of what a middleclass homeowner who just bought a home. And that’s unfair.

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  7. Grapevines says:

    Just goes to show you what happens when you fill the legislature and governor’s seat with people from the same party. (democrats) Not a one of them has ever seen a tax or fee that they opposed.

    We gotta finance legislative aids raises/the bullet train to nowhere/water tunnels to drain the life out of the delta/and who knows what else before we even look at schools, roads, and community services.

    And lets not talk about the third rail of California politics, state employee pension reform. (Makes me shiver to say it)

    Keep voting the same fools in, but give me a break, don’t preach that they are going to do anything but continue down the same path to the toilet that they are heading now.

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 1

  8. Jim Bennett says:

    I know people who were at that meeting you shared on Youtube.
    There’s a group/website called Oathkeepers (Google), many were there.

    We are arriving at a crossroad in which officials will have to make the most important decision of their lives.
    Are they gonna go along to get along.
    Are they going to grow a spine.
    Stand with the globalists.
    Stand with Americans.
    The catalyst for that meeting was largely the decision to blow up an important dam in Siskiyou County that would ruin many ranchers/private property all under a contrived salmon protection that could be affordably mitigated even if true. Hundreds of dams share the same plight.

    Our Sheriff is Steve Freitas.
    I’ve met with him, given him the truth.
    I’ll be following up, having sheriffs from Oathkeepers contact him as well.
    The Sheriff and Judges Constitutionally are the most powerful people in the county.
    Our’s is to remind them of their oath, and what’s at stake.
    What’s at stake is surviving the insideous takedown we are currently under.
    Falling to tyranny.
    Here. Now.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  9. Steveguy says:

    I know many people that will be impacted. They already pay for fire protection. I will recommend that they all sue the State.

    When do we finally stand up against this nonsense ?

    @Jim, have you heard about the NorCal Sheriff’s fighting back ? This is an hour long video, but they are standing up to the ridiculous regulation of rural and public lands. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4RuWK2Ww-4

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 2

  10. Jim Bennett says:

    Well, septic over reach. Thousands in fines for finding a dead animal/fish on your property even if from natural causes. Burning wood, tree control forbidden. Rediculous definitions of ‘water way’ or ‘wet land’. ‘Setbacks’, ‘View Sheds’.
    A decadae of resistance just to rebuild your barn. ICLEI directed ‘Climate Action Plan’ eliminating natural gas/propane even for your BBQ or equipment?

    Allowing the roads to crumble to your rural country home.

    It goes on and on.

    Now this.

    They found a way to appropriate $300.
    BIILION to bribe/extort all the respective public officials into implementing OneBayArea though.

    Kinda makes you wonder, if there’s no housing shortage, why are they into building all those Smart Growth ‘Transit Village gulags?

    Vehicle Miles Traveled Tax?

    I smell somethin’ and it aint apple pie.

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 2

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