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Sonoma County rural residents decry state fire fee

Published: Monday, November 21, 2011 at 9:20 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 21, 2011 at 9:20 a.m.

Sonoma County rural residents and fire chiefs, along with some state lawmakers, are protesting a new fire fee intended to raise an estimated $80 million statewide.

Approved last week by an obscure state board, the fee sought by Gov. Jerry Brown will cost rural homeowners $150 a year, with a $35 discount for those who pay an assessment to a local fire district.

The state Board of Equalization will issue bills for the fee next year, no later than July 1.

“It seems like double taxation,” said Craig Harrison, president of the Bennett Valley Community Association. “One more tax disguised as a user fee coming down the pike.”

Harrison pays $170 a year to the Bennett Valley Fire Department, one of 17 fire districts supported by parcel taxes in Sonoma County.

“Why am I paying for it again?” he said.

In Sonoma County, the fee applies to about 32,000 homes in the 800,000-acre rural area — 80 percent of the county — where Cal Fire provides fire protection.

Statewide, it applies to more than 840,000 homes on 31 million acres known as state responsibility area.

Cal Fire, a state agency, and local fire departments have a “shared mission” in responding to fires, Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Aston said. Local agencies are typically first on the scene, but rely on Cal Fire's vast resources for support, he said.

Aston and other local fire officials are concerned that the state fee will jeopardize support for their departments.

Forestville Fire District Chief Dan Northern said residents in his area pay a $115 district parcel tax and many will pay another $115 for the discounted state fee.

And he worries that local fire agencies will find it harder to get support for their own tax increases from voters paying a state fee. Last year, Forestville area voters boosted their tax from $40 to $115, he said.

Volunteer fire companies that depend largely on community fund-raisers for support will be hurt if donations fall by as little as $1,000 due to the state fee, Aston said.

“It's a big deal,” he said of the fee's potential impact.

A state fire fee, repeatedly proposed in Sacramento over the last 20 years, re-emerged this year and was authorized in a budget-related bill approved by the Legislature in June.

In September, lawmakers rebuffed the governor's proposal for a $175 fee, and Brown subsequently appointed four new members, all Democrats, to the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The nine-member board approved the $150 fee on a 6-2 vote on Nov. 9, two days after releasing the plan to the public.

“Clearly, it wasn't the most transparent” action, said Paul A. Smith of the Regional Council of Rural Counties, which opposes the fee.

Cal Fire will get $50 million of the fee revenue, with the remaining $30 million going to a special fund that will cover administrative expenses related to the fee and other programs, said Paul Berlant, a Cal Fire spokesman.

Cal Fire took a $70 million budget cut this year, prompting a reduction from four to three crew members on state fire engines.

“We made sure our folks knew they were going to have to do the same job with fewer people,” Berlant said. Fire incident commanders can still call in added resources, if needed, he said.

Fire fee revenue will “prevent further cuts from being made” to Cal Fire services, he said.

The five North Coast lawmakers, all Democrats — Sens. Noreen Evans and Mark Leno and Assemblymen Wesley Chesbro, Michael Allen and Jared Huffman — voted for the budget bill authorizing the $150 fee.

Chesbro, D-Arcata, whose district stretches from the Oregon border to Larkfield, said his vote was a mistake and that the state forestry board “took a bad idea and made it worse.”

The fee is inequitable, Chesbro said, because it applies the same rate to a one-room cabin on the North Coast as a $1 million mansion in Santa Barbara.

It also fails to consider the difference in fire risk between the foggy coast and an arid inland area, Chesbro said.

Seven of California's 10 worst wildland fires in recent years occurred in the southland, consuming more than 5,000 structures and causing 24 deaths. The three northern fires ruined 58 structures and killed two people.

Under a uniform fire fee, Forestville Chief Northern said, “Northern California is going to be subsidizing fire suppression in Southern California.”

Chesbro also faults the $35 fee discount for those who pay local fire taxes as “just throwing the fire districts a bone,” he said.

Chesbro is meeting with North Coast fire chiefs in an effort to draft a fire fee reform bill to be submitted in January. It could not be enacted in time to change the fee collected next year, he said.

Evans, D-Santa Rosa, said there were “no good choices” to be made in funding fire protection for rural California.

Cal Fire's budget has tripled in 10 years, while state tax revenues have dwindled. “What are you going to do, let the homes burn?” Evans said. “I don't think so.”

Rural firefighting should be supported by the state general fund, she said, “but we can't do that anymore.”

Cal Fire spent $466 million in 2001-02, compared with $777 million last fiscal year, with a peak expenditure of more than $1 billion in 2008-09.

Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, blasted the fire fee as “an unacceptable government abuse” that amounts to “a blank check to assess more taxes on citizens.”

Since landowners pay property taxes and in many areas fire district taxes, the state fire fee amounts to “double or triple taxation,” he said.

The fee, authorized by a majority vote of the Legislature, violates the Proposition 26 requirement of a two-thirds vote for certain fees and will likely be challenged in court, said Nielsen, who formerly represented Sonoma County in the state Senate.

Fred Levin, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association, also said the fee required a two-thirds vote. “It's a hardship on rural homeowners, especially in this economy,” he said.

Craig Harrison, the Bennett Valley community leader, said the fee was poorly conceived.

“We pay our property taxes and the money just seems to disappear in Sacramento,” he said.

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