State fire fee ignites anger as bills go out

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.

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