Capitol Alert

Fire districts losing tax votes point finger at state fee

In this September photo, an excavator removes trees that were bulldozed for a firebreak in the battle against the Rim Fire along Dodge Ridge in the Stanislaus National Forest, near Tuolumne City, Calif. Some local fire officials say the state’s fire prevention fee has hampered tax measures on the ballot.
In this September photo, an excavator removes trees that were bulldozed for a firebreak in the battle against the Rim Fire along Dodge Ridge in the Stanislaus National Forest, near Tuolumne City, Calif. Some local fire officials say the state’s fire prevention fee has hampered tax measures on the ballot. AP

Frank Treanor doesn’t have exit polling to help explain why almost 38 percent of voters in the fire district he leads north of San Francisco voted against a November 2012 ballot measure to increase what property owners pay the district annually.

But Treanor, chief of the Rancho Adobe Fire Protection District, said he is sure of the reason: Most of the district falls within the vast swath of the state where property owners pay a state fire prevention fee, in addition to any local charges.

The ‘no’ vote was enough to deprive the Rancho Adobe measure of the two-thirds support it needed to pass, he said, and continue the district’s financial stress.

“If you hadn’t gotten a bill I think it would have been pretty easy to get that extra 4 percent,” Treanor said.

In the four years since lawmakers approved it, a state fire prevention fee on properties in about a third of the state’s rural areas had yielded more than $300 million through June for prevention-related activities.

The money has gone to administration and statewide prevention, such as defensible space inspections and vegetation clearing, amid concern by some local officials that non-profit fire safe councils haven’t received more money

At the same time, officials contend, the fee has had an unintended consequence: undermining local agencies’ ability to raise their own money for fire protection and prevention efforts, even as the state’s long drought has increased the fire risk.

31 million Number of acres for which the state has the primary firefighting responsibility

Near Auburn, voters in August rejected a ballot measure to increase a special tax that benefits the Higgins Fire Protection District. It would have repealed a longtime $25 parcel tax and replaced it with a fire protection tax that averaged about $141 parcel.

Fifty-nine percent of voters supported the proposal, short of the necessary two-thirds and the second time in two years that a special fire tax had failed. Virtually all of the district is in the state responsibility area.

“The only misunderstanding that I heard was that people assumed the SRA fee goes to the fire district,” said Pete Marchinek, an engineer with the department, who talked with voters during the campaign.

The first state prevention bills started showing up in people’s mailboxes in summer 2012. Since June 2012, at least 32 local fire tax measures have been on the ballot. Of those, 21 failed, almost all of them in districts that include significant portions of responsibility area.

In the four years before the fee took effect, there were at least 35 fire district revenue measures. Of those, two dozen passed and 11 failed, according to election results compiled by the California Local Government Finance Almanac.

In other cases, officials said, the presence of the state fee has kept local officials from even trying to win over voters for a higher parcel tax.

Some officials had warned of a local impact when the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection crafted regulations to impose the charge. The final rules included a $35 discount for property owners covered by a local fire district. Today, the discounted rate of $117.33 applies to about 98 percent of the more than 800,000 properties subject to the fee.

Cal Fire has not tracked the success rate of local measures since the state prevention fee took effect, department spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

“We recognize the important role fire districts play. From our standpoint there’s no intention to compete when it comes to funding sources,” Berlant said.

They don’t have options

Michael Coleman, local government finance expert, on special districts’ revenue-raising challenges.

Local districts seeking higher taxes have long faced the challenge of getting two-thirds support. Cities and counties can pass general-purpose tax measures on a majority vote, but fire districts and other special districts need to achieve super-majority backing.

Of the fire district tax and bond measures that failed since 2012, more than half received majority support.

“It’s big,” local finance expert Michael Coleman, who writes the local government finance almanac, said of the effect of the two-thirds threshold. “They don’t have options. They can’t do a majority-vote tax.”

In addition, Coleman said, most of the state area and overlapping local districts are in parts of California where voters are more conservative and skeptical of taxes to begin with. “These measures are often hard to pass anyway,” he said.

In the Rancho Adobe district, officials shuttered stations on a rotating basis following the defeat of Measure Z in November 2012. A grant from the nearby Graton Resort and Casino has helped balance the department’s books, he said, but represents only a short-term solution. “Personally, I don’t want to depend on that money,” Treanor said, adding that the district might put another measure on the ballot in 2016.

Republican lawmakers unanimously opposed the fee during the 2011 budget vote. Since then, there have been multiple attempts to eliminate the charge, mostly by GOP lawmakers who represent the bulk of the area subject to the charge. Some Democrats, though, also have expressed misgivings.

Earlier this year, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, introduced a bill to repeal the fee and replace it with a disaster-response surcharge on residential and commercial insurance policies. The bill’s backers include firefighters unions concerned about the fee, in part because of concerns that it crowds out local tax measures to help pay for firefighters and equipment.

A disaster-response surcharge would raise money for efforts besides preventing wildfires, supporters say.

“California is disaster central,” said Carroll Wills, a spokesman for California Professional Firefighters, an umbrella group for unionized firefighters. “By limiting the (responsibility area) assessment to these areas, it puts an undue burden on those taxpayers and ignores the larger risk we face.

“We understand the fiscal circumstances that led to its introduction, but we think it should go away,” he said.

Related: Millions of dollars in California fire prevention money goes unspent