Fire fee leaves rural foothill residents angry, confused

Published: Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 - 11:06 am

Foothill residents in the Sacramento region are bracing for the second year of "fire prevention fees," a $150 charge that a class-action lawsuit alleges is an illegal tax.

The state Board of Equalization began sending out bills two weeks ago to more than 700,000 Californians who own homes in the 31 million-acre "state responsibility area" where the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is responsible for fire protection.

In October, El Dorado County joined the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association's lawsuit seeking to block the state's fire fees on rural properties, but hearings have barely begun.

Until the lawsuit is resolved, advocates for rural residents are encouraging them to play by the rules, pay the fee, then appeal it.

"We don't want to get caught up in penalties and interest," said George Runner, a member of the Board of Equalization whose district covers most of Northern and Central California and includes half of those subject to the fee. Late bills are subject to a steep penalty of 20 percent per month.

Runner, who opposes the fee and has conducted conference calls about it with 2,400 constituents, noted that many residents who were billed simply didn't pay the fee last year.

According to the Board of Equalization, 101,000 people – or 13 percent of those billed – still haven't paid the fee for last year.

Placer County Supervisor Jim Holmes understands why. While he paid his fee last year, he said the appeal process was overly confusing and he wasn't able to complete it.

"As soon as Placer County starts getting those bills, I'll be getting some phone calls," said Holmes.

Because many residents don't know where the funds go, Holmes fears they may be reluctant to support their cash-strapped local fire districts, which haven't actually benefited from the fee.

The region's foothill residents aren't just confused, though. They're angry, and like most people subject to the fire prevention fee, say they don't see the benefit.

"Our government has forgotten that they work for us," said William Ames of Rescue. While he can afford to pay the $150 fee, Ames said the officials responsible for it should be voted out.

"We're talking about $150 here. It's not a lot of money. It's the principle," he said.

To others, though, the fee feels quite costly. Joy Durner is a disabled widow who has lived in Rescue since 1970. She said that last year's tax "hurt."

"When you get old like I am, you can't just pick the money off a tree," Durner said. Like many residents, she said she thinks the fee is an illegal tax, but added that living on a fixed income made the idea of fighting the fee in court impractical.

Many residents are also angry because they said they felt the fee didn't assist their local fire districts or provide them with any special services. Durner, who keeps horses, said her property is "nothing but dirt" that doesn't pose a fire hazard.

"We have a 100-foot defensible space around the house," said Don Anderson, who lives in an unincorporated part of Placer County. He complained that the fee is levied only on homeowners, while large landowners whose unmaintained property poses a greater fire hazard are exempt.

But Janet Upton, a Cal Fire spokeswoman, said the effects of fire prevention efforts are necessarily hard to observe.

"What the fee is not for is fire engines, that sort of thing," she said. Instead, fire prevention includes a wide variety of activities, Upton said, including power line regulation and civil cost recovery, or suing those responsible for costly wildfires.

She added that while the fee did not fund any new positions last year, it provided a stable source of funding that wouldn't be cut in a down budget year.

This year, she said, the fee will help Cal Fire increase the number of boots on the ground for fire prevention.

"In this budget year, they added $11 million to our budget for fire severity treatment, education, planning and prevention," said Upton. Some 70 personnel will be added during the fire season, she said, including foresters for surplus vegetation and defensible-space inspectors to make sure houses are far enough away from fire hazards.

Still, rural Californians aren't happy about it.

"I don't know anyone other than the Legislature and the governor who think this is a good idea," said Runner. "It's just not fair."

Call The Bee's Jack Newsham, (916) 321-1100. Follow him in Twitter @TheNewsHam.

Editor's Note: This article has been changed from the print version to note that homeowner -- not land owners -- are responsible for paying the fee.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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