With smoke, there’s fire: The tax man cometh your way*

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday signed controversial legislation that imposes a first-ever annual fee of up to $150 on the estimated 860,000 homes located within the 31 million acres for which the state provides fire protection.

The governor said the legislation wasn’t perfect — he said it likely wouldn’t provide the hoped-for $50 million for the strapped state — but that lawmakers could tweak the bill later.

Opponents of the fee, which include the Regional Council of Rural Counties, contend it is double taxation since some landowners have already agreed to assess themselves to pay for fire protection.  

“With this fee, residents aren’t getting any more fire protection than they already have. So a property owner that’s already covered by the state and a local fire protection district will simply be paying another fee for the same level of protection,” said Catherine Smith, executive director of the Fire Districts Association of California, which represents 360 fire districts around the state – many of them located in unincorporated rural areas.  

Smith’s association estimates residents of at least 7 million acres of state responsibility fire areas already pay for local fire protection.

The Brown administration acknowledges that the measure makes no provision for residents who already pay for local protection.

“As the bill is currently written it does not distinguish between (property owners) that have fire protection districts and those that don’t,” said Janet Upton, deputy director of communications at Cal Fire, the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

But the Brown administration is quick to stress that the fee is earmarked for fire prevention, not fire protection.

“Everyone is labeling this a fire protection fee. It’s not. It’s a fire prevention fee. This fee does not pay for additional engines. It pays for prevention services,” said George Gentry, executive officer of the Board of Forestry, which will determine how the fee works.

Another plus for the Brown administration from imposing the fee on property owners is that doing so is expected to save the state’s cash-starved general fund an estimated $50 million during the current fiscal year and up to $200 million the following year.

California’s largest general fund expenditure for natural resources is fire protection. Excluding capital outlay, fire protection costs have ballooned from $583 million a decade ago to more than $1 billion currently.

In part that’s due to population increases in rural areas. Protecting lives and structures is more complicated – and therefore more expensive – than simply fighting a wildlands fire.

This isn’t the first attempt by the state to rein in spiraling firefighting costs. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger several times proposed a 2.8 percent surcharge on all residential and commercial property insurance premiums to defray the costs of fire protection.

The surcharge was judged a tax by the Legislative Counsel’s Office, which meant it needed a two-thirds vote. Republican opposition doomed the idea.

However, on Page 23 of the summary of the budget signed June 30, Brown cites $50 million in savings from the fee being imposed in what are known as State Responsibility Areas.

State Responsibility Areas are privately owned forestlands, watersheds and rangeland. They’re found in every county except Sutter and San Francisco.

Mendocino County has the most area under state protection – nearly 1.9 million acres. Kern has 1.7 million acres under state protection. Santa Clara has 1.3 million.

The state contracts with six counties to carry out its firefighting responsibilities: Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Kern, Santa Barbara and Marin.

It’s unclear how the fee measure saves the state the money Brown claims it will in the budget.

According to the bill – ABX1 29, by Assemblymember Bob Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys — proceeds aren’t to be used for offsetting department operational costs.

Instead, the bill says the money must be used only for fire prevention efforts that “shall benefit owners of structures within the state responsibility areas who are required to pay the annual fire prevention fee.”

Among the chief uses for the new fee money is grants to counties, special districts, Fire Safe Councils and the California Conservation Corps or similar local entities.

Money from the fees can also be used to pay for inspections by Cal Fire  to ensure homes follow the state’s defensible space requirements.

State law requires s minimum 100 feet of cleared space around a house. Localities can require more.

 “Public education to reduce fire risk in the state responsibility areas” is also a permissible expense as is mapping by Cal Fire to determine the degree of fire risk in different state responsibility areas.

Spending on other fire prevention projects can also be approved by the nine-member Board of Forestry.

The timetable for implementing the fees is ambitious – particularly by state standards. Emergency regulations are to be approved by the board by Sept. 1.
Within 30 days after that, Cal Fire must provide the names and addresses of the Californians who will be assessed the fee to the state Board of Equalization which, in turn, will collect it.

The legislation is silent as to how or when the board does that but specifies that property owners must pay within 30 days of receiving notice.

Nor does the bill offer the forestry board guidance as to how to set the fee or what criteria to use in doing so.

For example, the bill says a fee “not to exceed $150.” Would the amount of the fee paid be based on a structure’s square footage or other factors?

A “structure” is defined by the bill as a “building used or intended to be used for human habitation.”

The rural counties ask whether that includes businesses, hospitals or public buildings.

Again based on the plan’s goals, the fee would likely be lower for property owners who have already taken steps to protect their structures, like creating defensible space.   

But Gentry cautions that one-size-fits-all won’t work.

“There are a variety of factors that should weigh into the equation,” Gentry said. “But the board still has got to pull this all apart and see how things work on the ground and then adjust accordingly.”

*Ed’s Note: Updates throughout with Gov. Brown signing the legislation.

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