State Fire Fee Fires up Local Residents
By KRISTAN KORNS, Two Rivers Tribune
Local homeowners are upset about bills for a new $150 fire prevention fee on each habitable structure being sent to rural residents across California, and taxpayer groups are preparing a lawsuit to fight it.
Kris Vosburgh, the executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association (HJTA), said that because of California’s Proposition 13, new taxes need to pass by a two-thirds vote.
“When you pay a fee, you’re supposed to receive a specific service that’s not available to people who don’t pay,” Vosburgh said. “No new service is being provided. That’s what makes it a tax.”
Mike Howe, the Humboldt-Del Norte Cal Fire unit chief, confirmed that the fee will go to fund his organization’s current operations.
“There’s not going to be more bulldozers, fire engines or crews as a result of it,” Howe said, adding, “This fee originated with the legislature. Cal Fire didn’t dream this up.”
California Assembly Bill 129 (ABX129) was added as a ‘trailer bill’ to the Budget Act of 2011.
Property owners within the State Responsibility Area (SRA) – rural areas outside city boundaries – must pay $150 per habitable structure, with a discount of $35 if it is covered by a local fire protection agency.
The Board of Equalization began mailing the bills in mid August alphabetically by county name. Bills for Del Norte were sent out at the end of August, and Humboldt’s were sent out on Sept. 10. Bills for Trinity County will be sent after Nov. 11.
Hoopa Wildland Fire Chief Gary Risling said that nobody in the Hoopa Valley will be getting a bill for the fee.
“This doesn’t apply within the reservation boundary,” Risling said, “because none of the lands are classified as SRA.”
All of the lands within the Hoopa Valley Reservation are classified as federal trust lands. Other areas are more complicated, like the mixture of trust lands and fee lands on the Yurok Reservation.
The Senior Attorney for the Yurok Tribe, John Corbett, said he was looking into the situation.
Properties on federal trust lands don’t have to pay the fee, but those on fees lands do.
Ron Recker, the regional fire management officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said, “On the Yurok lands held as fee lands, they’re the same as any other property owner.
Howe said, “The lands along the Klamath River in the Yurok areas are probably going to be the most prone to errors. The databases haven’t kept up with a lot of the land transfers.”
The bills are being sent out to whoever was the owner on record for each property on July 1.
People who receive the bills have 30 days to either send the payment or protest in writing with a Petition for Redetermination form. Forms are available by calling 1-888-310-6447 or visiting www.FirePreventionFee.org.
Bob Knight, who runs Knight’s Park in Willow Creek, said that he already protested by calling the Governor’s office and his state representative.
“We make our living renting out the trailers out month to month and we just got a bill for all of them,” Knight said. “It was in the neighborhood of $1300 to $1400. That’s hard to afford.”
Willow Creek residents said they didn’t think the fee would do anything to help the local area.
Joe O’Hara said, “We’re surrounded by federal forest, so why send a bill for Cal Fire?”
Candy Boak said, “It makes me very angry that I have to pay for another fire tax in an area that Cal Fire doesn’t even have a station at.”
The Willow Creek Volunteer Fire Department is supported by a fire assessment paid by residents of the Willow Creek Fire Protection District (WCFPD).
Jan Joki, the chair of the WCFPD, said that Willow Creek covers up to Lord Ellis Summit, and Blue Lake covers up to Berry Summit.
“It’s outside both our districts,” Joki said, “but we do this because the whole place would be up in flames before Cal Fire could get here.”
She said that 51 percent of the voters in the district had to approve the assessment for the WCFPD, which is on top of their regular property tax bill.
“So, my question is – if this Cal Fire thing is an assessment, why didn’t they have to get 51 percent of the voters to approve it?” Joki said.
She added there are a high percentage of retired people in the area, and the new fee is a large burden for people who are on fixed incomes.
“It’s not easy for these folks to come up with this fee,” Joki said, “and this is for the 2011 to 2012 fiscal year. We’re going to be hit again in March for the 2012 to 2013 bill.”
Boak said, “I feel a lot of pain for people on a fixed income who had less than a 30-day notice to pay that bill.”
One of the major arguments in favor of Proposition 13, which was a ballot initiative passed in 1978, was the idea that retirees and seniors could be forced from their homes by rising taxes that they couldn’t afford on fixed incomes.
Proposition 13 lowered property tax rates, limits yearly increases in property taxes, and requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.
The Humboldt County Fire Chiefs Association announced to its members that they support the efforts of the HJTA to challenge the fee in court and have it declared illegal under Proposition 13.
“Because many homeowners will not see a direct benefit from their payment of the bill, this charge is a tax (and not having been properly approved by the legislature) is illegal,” they wrote.
Barbara Darst, the president of the Willow Creek Fire Safe Council, said she felt the fee money was being used to balance the budget and not fight fires locally.
“I don’t have a problem with the money going to our firefighters,” Darst said, “but I just don’t think that’s where it’s going to go.”
Boak said, “It’s just like the water. It all goes to Southern California where they pay less than we do for water. Now we have to pay for their fire protection.”
“This fee is hitting everybody in the rural areas, but not the big cities where the votes are,” Knight said. “It doesn’t even help suppress fires. They’re just balancing the budget on the backs of the people who don’t have the votes.”