California board passes rural fire fee, but changes are likely

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011 - 9:29 am

The state fire board approved a maximum $90 annual fee on rural homeowners Monday, well below the $150 charge envisioned by lawmakers in their June budget.

The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection had to act by September under a Democratic budget plan to raise $50 million. But the board's emergency regulation falls well short of that target, especially when higher administrative and inspection costs are considered.

The fee structure is far from final.

Gov. Jerry Brown is working with lawmakers on a new version that allows the state to use some revenue for firefighting. Meanwhile, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has vowed to file suit against whatever plan emerges, saying the proposal is a tax that requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

Board members sought to lay groundwork that would set the fee in motion, as required by Assembly Bill X1 29. Chairman Stan L. Dixon acknowledged that the regulation was a first draft and expected the board would "get an earful" from the public after approving the fee Monday.

An estimated 850,000 rural residents who live in a "state responsibility area" would have to pay the fee. The board plan calls for a maximum of $90 in annual costs for those who live in areas designated as "extreme" fire zones, while those elsewhere would pay $70.

The regulation also includes $65 in credits that would reduce fees, including $45 for those who already pay for fire prevention programs through district fees and local taxes.

If the plan proceeds as drawn Monday, it would leave Cal Fire with a new budget gap unless the board increases the fire fee or the Legislature provides additional state funding.

Board executive officer George Gentry estimated that the regulation would generate $30 on average for each of the 850,000 homes eligible. That totals $25.5 million before subtracting new administrative costs estimated between $10 million and $12 million. In addition, the department would have to conduct more inspections and map verifications that could add to the price tag.

"I'm concerned the regulation doesn't meet the full intent of the governor's signing message; where he does identify the $50 million?" said Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, who recognized the board faced a very short period of time to pass its proposal.

A sparsely attended special session Monday in Sacramento exposed various challenges.

Pimlott noted that thousands of homeowners would likely appeal. That would require Cal Fire employees to visit rural homes to consider whether owners qualified for a defensible space credit or the department had placed a parcel in the correct fire risk zone.

The board was also mindful of a new voter-approved restriction, Proposition 26, that requires fees to pay directly for services rendered by the state. The proposal assigned portions of the $90 fee to different areas such as mapping, inspections and grants for fire prevention.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected from print and previous online versions to clarify that the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association believes the fee requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature, not the voters. Corrected at 9:30 a.m., Aug. 23, 2011.

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