‘Fire tax’ debate heats up

As the weather heats up,  a Capitol debate is heating up, too — on the hotly disputed ‘fire tax.’


The $150 annual charge on some 850,000 rural property owners is on the books, despite delays in collections, court action and tens of thousands of complaints from property owners. Republican lawmakers have seized the issue as a hot political topic.


The money raised is intended to help cover the costs of fighting wildfires and ease tight budgets. But public reaction — particularly in the rural areas of the statewide State Responsibility Area — has been intense.


Two weeks ago, the state Board of Equalization delayed fee collections, noting a work overload stemming from some 87,000 appeals from angry property owners. Meanwhile, a major legal challenge has been launched by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which contends the fire fee actually is a tax and violates Proposition 13.


In the second wave of trying to collect on the newly enforced AB X1 29, many have cited public outcry as the main reason this fee should be discounted or eliminated all together.


“Fire protection should always be an important budget priority, but the fire tax is both unfair and unwarranted,” said Assemblymember Mike Morrell, R – Rancho Cucamonga, said earlier.


“The public passed historic taxpayer protections like Propositions 13 and 26 to protect them against taxation without representation and it is important that Sacramento respect the will of the people.”


Assemblymembers Morrell, Kevin Jefferies (R –Lake Elsinore) and Tim Donnelly (R-Hesperia) have also introduced new bills in an effort to block the “Fire Tax” from moving forward.


As of Tuesday morning, there were at least seven separate pieces of legislation dealing with curbing or repealing the fire tax — three in the Senate and four in the Assembly. All the Senate bills are authored by Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, whose 1st Senate District covers a huge swath of northeastern California. The measures seek to exempt from the fee low-income residents and those who live in fire-protection districts, as well as repeal the tax altogether.


The residents receiving the fire tax bills are residents of the SRAs or any “area of the state where the State of California is financially responsible for the prevention and suppression of wildfires.”


The designated areas are located wherever wild land have the most potential to begin. In the last few years, that has literally been all over California. Residents can find their SRA location here.


The SRAs stretch from inland San Diego to just north of Eureka, and make up roughly 31 million acres.


Thus far, the state has fallen short of its $89 million goal for property assessment, education and prevention programs.


According to the California Taxpayers Association, only 20 percent of the bills that have been sent to SRAs are being paid on time.


Of the roughly 850,000 notices that have been mailed to affected residents, at least 78,000 appeals have already been filed. Some 70 percent of those cases disputing the fee have been dismissed.


But maybe there’s other numbers to consider.


Barely 11 percent of residents that are complaining, and some $60 million has already been collected in less than a year since the Fire Safety Tax has been enforced. Most startling of all: In 2007, California spent a record $372 million on wildfire costs alone.


But the backlash against the fire tax continues to grow. In January, The Board of Equalization and CalFire were both served with a class-action lawsuit by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation.


“We felt it was a tax, not a fee; and, therefore, it constitutionally required a two-thirds vote of each house of the Legislature, rather than a simple majority,” said Tim Bittle, legal affairs direector for the HJTA.


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