Head to Head: Should California abandon the wildfire prevention fee?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 13A

THE ISSUE: Development in the "wildland-urban interface" is accelerating, along with Cal Fire's costs to protect private property from blazes. The Legislative Analyst's Office has long recommended a fee on owners of private land to cover a portion of Cal Fire costs. In 2011, the Legislature established a fire prevention fee of $150 on each home in the state's responsibility area. Collection begins this month.

Should California abandon the wildfire prevention fee?

Pia Lopez: No

Who should bear the burden of protecting homes in forested areas – such as development in the Sierra Nevada foothills and the interior ranges of Southern California?

Should it be all California taxpayers? Or local governments that allow building in those areas? Or individuals who choose to take the risk of living in a fire-prone landscape?

Opponents of the fee – including George Runner, who from his perch at the Board of Equalization is sending out official emails decrying the fee as an "illegal money-grab" – whine that the fee is merely covering for general fund budget cuts to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. But that precisely is the point.

So long as the cost of protecting private structures in wildland areas is borne primarily by state taxpayers, individuals have little incentive to weigh the real cost of living in wooded areas – and counties have little incentive to make responsible land use decisions.

In 1998-99, Cal Fire spent $415 million on fire protection; that has increased to more than $1 billion in recent years as more homes sprawl into the forest. California currently has 825,488 homes on 31 million acres of land where financial responsibility for preventing and suppressing fires falls primarily on the state.

The recent Robbers fire near Auburn alone cost Cal Fire more than $13 million. One house burned; 170 were threatened. The 2007 Angora fire west of South Lake Tahoe destroyed 254 homes and 75 businesses, costing Cal Fire $12 million.

The $150 fee – $12.50 per month – for homes in high-risk fire zones (with a $35 discount if a local agency provides fire protection services) is the minimum the state should do to bring some measure of cost accountability in fire-prone areas.

The counties with the most homes in fire-prone areas are San Diego (100,814), San Bernardino (65,637), Placer (57,549) and El Dorado (51,897).

The fee goes to fire prevention – including thinning forests, educating people about defensible space, improving fire resistance of homes. But let's not delude ourselves that we can fireproof forests. Forest fires will occur in California, and all of us have to live with that risk.

What's really needed is a more responsible pattern of residential development. We need a change of mindset, treating the "fire plain" more like a "floodplain" – protect taxpayers by requiring insurance and deterring the location of risky construction.

Individuals who want the experience of living in flammable landscapes have to take on more of the cost of that choice.

Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.

Ben Boychuk: Yes, but …

California taxpayers shouldn't have to subsidize fire services for people who choose to live in wildfire-prone areas. That's a no-brainer.

Requiring homeowners who directly benefit from state fire protection to pay a greater share of the cost is a fine idea. And user fees are a perfectly legitimate funding mechanism. So Pia and I are in broad agreement.

But what about this fee?

It smelled from the start. Gov. Jerry Brown wanted the Legislature to approve a $175 fee. Lawmakers balked. The legislation provided instead that the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection would set and implement the fee. A year ago this month, the board approved a $90 fee that included up to $65 in credits, meaning some property owners would pay as little as $25 a year. So Brown sacked the old board. His new appointees approved a much higher fee in November.

Critics – including Board of Equalization board member George Runner, Lake Elsinore Republican Kevin Jeffries, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association – argue such gimmickry makes the "fee" more of a "tax," and subject to a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. With repeal unlikely, expect an onslaught of suits when the first bills hit mailboxes.

But let's assume the fee passes constitutional muster. Fire "prevention" is not the same as "protection." The legislation says nothing about buying or maintaining equipment.

And important as public education and grants may be, many rural counties already have robust fire prevention ordinances in place. Residents of San Bernardino County's mountain communities, for example, must clear pine needles and brush from their properties every year or risk fines. Those communities also abut national forests, which have their own sets of rules.

So what's really going on here?

Once again, it's about labor costs. Counties that contract with Cal Fire have seen their administrative costs skyrocket in the past five years. More to the point, state firefighters benefit from the "3 percent at 50" formula, which lets them retire at age 50 with up to 90 percent of their salaries.

Firefighters can work up to 84 hours per week. They're paid regular time for the first 53 hours, and receive "extended duty week pay" after that.

CalPERS says that overtime accounts for as much as 40 percent of a state firefighter's retirement pay in some cases.

Yes, user fees and wiser land-use policies make sense. But fee payers should know what exactly they're paying for. Labor costs are spreading like wildfire. We need to contain them – urgently.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. (www.city-journal.org/california)

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