SACRAMENTO -- More than 800,000 Californians who own property in wildfire country will begin receiving bills this week for a new annual fire-protection fee, rekindling outrage among rural residents and leading to a likely lawsuit seeking to overturn the surcharge.
The fee, passed by Democrats in the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, is intended to raise an estimated $84 million in its first year for fire-prevention efforts. The annual charge can run as high as $150 for property owners with a single occupied dwelling, although there is a $35 discount for those who already pay a local tax for fire protection.
The discount will apply to about 95 percent of rural property owners, but it's not enough to quell the anger in the parts of California where the fee will apply.
"Everybody that knows about it is upset, but I think 90 percent of the public has no idea it's coming. It's going to be quite a shock," said John Little of Laytonville, chief of the Long Valley Fire Protection District in rural Mendocino County.
He said the $115 annual bill will hurt residents in his 250-square-mile district. The region, between the Mendocino National Forest and the Pacific Ocean, has a jobless rate of 18 percent and many seniors living on fixed incomes.
The bills start going out today and will have been issued to more than 825,000 property owners by year's end. They are being sent to counties in alphabetical order, so residents of Alameda, Alpine and Amador counties will be first in line.
The fee was imposed on those who own property within the 31 million rural acres covered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, a responsibility area that includes about one-third of the state.
Fire danger there is growing more extreme, according to a recent University of California, Merced study prepared for the California Energy Commission. Climate change, development and changes to the landscape may double the fire risk to rural homes over the next 40 years, researchers found. They predict the greatest increase in risk in Northern California's foothills and mountains.
Brown sought the fee mostly to help close the state's budget deficit, calling it "a fee consistent with the 'beneficiary pays principle'," in his signing message. If additional money can be raised and dedicated to CalFire, he reasoned, a similar amount could go to other state services that have experienced deep budget cuts.
The fee will help prevent more spending cuts for state firefighters, department spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
Over the past 18 months, the department has dealt with an $80 million budget cut by hiring 700 fewer seasonal firefighters, closing an air base in Fresno and mothballing five bulldozers and both of its fire engines serving the Lake Tahoe area because it lacked enough firefighters to operate them. Fire protection around Lake Tahoe is now provided by local fire districts and the U.S. Forest Service.
The fee will pay for the department's existing fire-prevention efforts, including thinning brush and trees and clearing around homes.
Soon after the bills go out, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association plans to file a lawsuit to have the fee declared unconstitutional.