Jerry Brown approves new fire protection fee for rural dwellers

Published: Saturday, Jul. 9, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Saturday, Jul. 9, 2011 - 12:21 am

Rural homeowners will pay the state a new fee for fire services under legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed Friday as part of his budget agreement with lawmakers.

The proposal, Assembly Bill X1 29, caps the fire fee at $150 per structure annually until 2013, when it will be adjusted for inflation.

Democrats passed it on a majority vote last month and said it was not a tax because rural residents rely on the state for fire protection.

Brown agreed with that argument in his signing message Friday, saying that the bill "recognizes that a portion of the costs borne by the state for wildland fire prevention and protection services should be funded by the landowners in these areas."

Lawmakers intended for the program to raise $50 million in new revenue this fiscal year and $200 million annually thereafter, saving money by relieving the state of those costs. The proposal would apply to 850,000 structures outside city boundaries or federally protected areas.

The bill requires the Board of Equalization to establish a program by Sept. 1 to collect the new fees, but implementation hurdles remain. Brown said Friday "the revenues may not materialize" unless lawmakers pass new legislation.

Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said the governor's main quibble was that the bill finances fire prevention, not fire protection. The former involves grants for clearing brush around homes and identifying fire hazards, whereas the latter would pay for firefighters, helicopters and other fire suppression costs.

Brown wants follow-up legislation that corrects the bill and incorporates suggestions from a working group of state and local officials. One local quandary, for instance, is that part of the gated Rancho Murieta community in unincorporated Sacramento County is within the "State Responsibility Area."

Residents there may have to pay the fee even though they already pay for Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District services unless the state exempts them, according to Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

The state also runs the risk that taxpayer groups will sue to block the fee because they say it is a new tax and required a two-thirds vote for passage. Legislative Republicans, who represent most of rural California, lambasted the proposal under the same argument.

In a separate action, Brown vetoed legislation that would have allowed low-income elderly, blind and disabled to postpone their property tax payments after former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suspended the Senior Citizens' Property Tax Postponement Law in 2009. Brown said in a veto message that the state could not afford the $19.3 million cost in AB X1 34.

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