The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association announced Thursday that it is suing to end a $150 annual state fire fee imposed on California's rural residents and obtain refunds for those who have already paid.
The group alleges in Sacramento Superior Court that the fee, which the state began collecting in August, amounts to a tax that was illegally approved without the necessary two-thirds majority of lawmakers.
Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats approved the measure as part of their 2011 budget deal, while the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and Board of Equalization were charged with carrying out the program.
The state is assessing owners of an estimated 825,000 rural parcels $150 annually, with a $35 credit for those who already live in a fire district. As of last week, the state had mailed 280,561 bills and received 69,200 payments, according to the fee-collecting state Board of Equalization. Bills are now going out to Nevada County as the state works alphabetically through the counties.
The parcels are contained in the "State Responsibility Area" which the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection serves outside city boundaries.
Brown argued that it is legitimate to ask rural residents to pay higher costs for fire prevention in the wake of larger developments on once-rural lands that face greater wildfire risks.
In the wake of a 2010 initiative sponsored by anti-tax and business organizations, it is harder for lawmakers to pass fees on a majority vote. Money paid must provide a direct benefit to the payer.
In its class-action lawsuit filed alongside plaintiffs from nine counties, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association suggests there are too many differences in Cal Fire services provided across the state to justify a uniform fee. The suit claims the charge should have been considered a tax requiring a two-thirds vote.
"This is putting a huge stress and strain and fear on rural property owners," Jarvis group President Jon Coupal said. "It is taking away from the ability of local fire districts to communicate effectively with their own members and when this thing is all done, it's going to be a monumental waste of time and money."
Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said state officials believe the fee complies with the law and that state agencies have a duty to carry out the program.
"We think it's unfortunate that (the Jarvis group) is trying to obstruct funding that we need for fire prevention," Upton said. "We strongly feel that prevention activities funded by the fee save lives and property."