A price tag for battling the flames

Hundreds of thousands of rural residents across California will find something new in their mailbox by the end of the year — a bill for firefighting.

The $150 charge, known as a “fire prevention fee,” passed the Legislature in July of last year. It is intended to help balance cuts to Cal Fire and will go toward fire protection efforts in these areas most prone to wildfires. The fee, supported by some 825,488 habitable structures in the state, is expected to generate $89 million for the current fiscal year.

The houses and other structures receiving this fee all lay within the State Responsibility Area (SRA), which consists of 31 million acres in California whose fire protection is charged to the state. The SRA was created decades ago to protect against wildfires that could harm the state’s timber, watershed, and rangeland resources. In recent years, the amount of houses and structures in the SRA has grown, increasing from 2000 to 2010 by 16%. This increase in population and homes has made it more expensive for the state to fight wildfires in these areas.

California has long faced disastrous and expensive wildfires.

From Jan. 1 to July 14 of this year, there have been 3,126 fires spanning a total of 23,268 acres, according to Cal Fire. From 1933 to 2010, there has been an average of 4,376 fires every five years costing the state an average of about $100 million. More recent years stand out as especially expensive, such as 2003 which saw the state spend more than $974 million on wildfires and 2007 when the state spent about $253 million fighting the flames.

The Brown administration hopes this fee will reduce wildfire costs in the future by using the funds for brush clearing and other prevention efforts. However, there are concerns that the state will not be able to generate as much money as it hopes to if too many people seek to remove themselves from the SRA to avoid paying the yearly fee.

According to Mark Sektan, president of the Association of California Insurance Companies, dealing with this increase in population and wildfire costs has been a problem for the state for many years.

“There’s a lot of concern that individuals in the cities would be subsidizing people who live in the urban-rural interface,” Sektan said. To combat this extra cost to the state and in the wake of the hugely expensive wildfires of 2007, the Schwarzenegger administration sought to pay for wildfire protection by including a fire fee on homeowners’ insurance policies. The Legislature rejected the plan.

“There were a lot of problems with this version. As insurers, we’re not tax collectors for the state,” Sektan said.

Instead, the state decided to charge the fee on a parcel basis by each habitable structure, without the involvement of insurance groups. The fee will now be charged by the state Board of Equalization. The BOE plans to begin sending out the bills in early August and says that all of them should be sent out by December.

Even so, the fee faces other challenges to its legality.

Some see it as an illegal tax, since most people in the SRA already pay for local fire districts, though there will be a $35 discount for the structures already in a local district. This applies to about 90 percent of the structures facing the fee.

Many have also questioned the potential conflict of interests at hand given that this fee may incentivize the state, which reevaluates the SRA each year, to keep it as large as possible in order to maximize the amount of money it can bring in. Opponents to the bill have said they may pursue a lawsuit, but whether or not the legality of the fee will be decided in the courts remains to be seen.

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