Calif. Residents Urged to Pay; Then Fight Fire Fee

July 17, 2013
Cal Fire officials say the annual fee will fund a variety of important fire prevention services

July 16--When it comes to paying taxes, there is no waiting out the government.

Former Sen. George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization, said Tehama County residents who receive the state's fire prevention fee should pay the bill now and fight later.

Runner is a strong opponent of the annual fee that is levied at the rate of $150 per habitable structure in the Cal Fire State Responsibility Area.

Property owners who are also within the boundaries of a local fire protection agency receive a reduction of $35.

Runner spoke with residents throughout the North State on Monday in a "town hall" meeting, via telephone, but urged them not to protest what he considers an illegal tax by tossing the bills in the trash.

"We have to trust the court will seek to overturn this," Runner said.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association formally served the California Board of Equalization, CalFire and state Department of Justice earlier this year with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's fire prevention fee.

The first court hearing is scheduled for Friday.

"This is the normal first step for a lawsuit to continue," Runner said.

Runner believes Howard Jarvis will eventually prevail in the lawsuit on the grounds it is really a tax that needed a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass.

The state will begin mailing fire prevention fee bills for Fiscal Year 2012-2013 on Friday, but Glenn County residents should not expect to receive bills until the week of Aug. 6.

The billings are sequenced alphabetically by county.

Not paying the bill, however, would result in additional penalties and interest that residents may not be able to recover if the court action is favorable, Runner said.

In addition to the lawsuit, there were several bills in the Legislature that could have altered who pays, how much is paid or repeal the fee completely, but none have succeeded, much to the disappointment of Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who joined Runner in the telephone conference on Monday.

"This was something that was done three years ago in the dark of night," Nielsen said. "It is an insidious bill."

According to Cal Fire officials, the annual fee will fund a variety of important fire prevention services within the SRA, including brush clearance around communities on public lands, along roadways and evacuation routes, and activities that will improve forest health so the forest can better withstand wildfire.

Nielsen, however, believes a lot of the money is being misspent, including $3.6 million he said went to an outside organization not related to fire prevention, and $4.2 million that will be used to take civil action against property owners to recover fire-related costs for fire that starts on private property.

"This was sold to the world and to us as fire prevention," Nielsen said. "That is not the case."

Nielsen said the fee was simply a way to back fill about $85 million in budget cuts to Cal Fire.

"Really, what it's all about is more money for the government," Nielsen said.

What the fee does not cover is fire protection, which was why many town hall participants Monday said they didn't want to pay the bill.

"I don't have the money," said a Cottonwood woman. "If I pay this, I won't have the money to pay my property taxes. That is the way it is for a lot of seniors, and why should we pay it if it does not go to fighting fires."

A 72-year-old Shasta man said he has been billed the fee on five parcels, but does not live in an area where Cal Fire contributes to firefighting efforts.

"I have never seen a Cal Fire truck," he said.

Although Runner agreed the fee was unfair, he said residents still have to find a way to pay the bill again this year, and pay for last year if they have not done so already.

"This has nothing to do with fighting fire," he said.

He encourages anyone who is having difficulty paying the fee to call the Board of Equalization to make payment arrangements.

"I think it is an illegal tax, but it is important to get it paid," he said. "Then we can fight it together."

Bill recipients who believe they should not have received a fire prevention fee bill should pay it and then file an appeal, which is referred to as a petition for redetermination.

A petition must be filed within 30 days of the date printed on the bill.

Nielsen said that in addition to the court action to overturn the bill, he believes California residents who do not live in the State Responsibility Area should join in the fight to have the fee repealed, as well.

He said if California residents do not fight what amounts to double and triple taxation, the state will continue to implement new "fees" to backfill budget cuts.

"I thought there would have been a firestorm over this tax," he said. "But there hasn't been."

CONTACT Susan Meeker at 934-6800 or [email protected].

Copyright 2013 - Orland Press Register, Calif.

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