Suit over validity of Calif. rural fire fee scheduled for court return

Residents are charged as much as $150 per year for each habitable structure they own; the fee replaces cuts to CalFire's budget


By Shea Johnson
The Daily Press

VICTORVILLE, Calif. — A class-action lawsuit filed against state agencies over a fire prevention fee, enacted in 2011 to offset approximately $85 million in budget cuts, is scheduled to re-enter Sacramento Superior Court on Thursday.

The suit, filed Oct. 4, 2012 by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, challenges the validity of the fee that has angered some rural homeowners who have had to pay it for two years now.

The state's Board of Equalization and Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) are named as defendants; a 74-year-old Phelan man is one of several plaintiffs.

Residents living in State Responsibility Areas — areas where fire prevention and suppression is the responsibility of Cal Fire — must pay the state $150 a year for each habitable structure they own.

The fee is lessened to $115 for 90 to 95 percent of homeowners in an SRA because they also live within the boundaries of a local fire protection agency, according to the Board of Equalization.

According to Cal Fire's SRA Parcel Viewer, the fee affects homeowners in parts of Pinion Hills, Phelan, Wrightwood, Oak Hills, Apple Valley and Lucerne Valley.

Brought into law July 7, 2011 with the passage of Assembly Bill X1 29, the fee is collected statewide from "owners of more than 825,000 parcels of rural property," according to the lawsuit.

A Cal Fire spokesman said last week that the fee does not provide "new money," but instead is intended to supplement approximately $85 million in cuts from the department's general fund in 2011.

"In the past, all our services were supported by the general fund," spokesman Dennis Mathisen said. "($85 million) was a significant reduction. (The Legislature's) solution to filling that gap was to introduce that fee."

He said services include projects, planning, risk analysis, law enforcement investigations, public education, staffing and general fire prevention and suppression.

However, HJTA contends the fee is actually a tax. As such, the bill should have required the approval of two-thirds of all members of each legislative house, they say.

"Yet, AB 29 was enrolled and forwarded to the Governor having received only majority approval in each house," an amended complaint reads.

HJTA created FireTaxProtest.org to keep concerned residents updated on the progress of the suit they say likely will not be soon resolved. In the meantime, they urge homeowners to pay their bill anyway or risk a lien on their property. They also say homeowners should file an appeal after paying.

Bills for the 2012-13 fiscal year were sent out to the affected San Bernardino County residents between Sept. 17 and Sept. 25.

Pinion Hills resident Donald Elliott, a retired painting contractor on a fixed income, said he paid his bill.

"It's a tax and they try to call it a fee," Elliott said. "I don't believe that throwing money at this thing is going to put a fire out."

Elliott said he also worries about how much the fee could go up in the future, since by law it will be subject to inflation beginning with the 2013-14 fiscal year. It was already announced last month, according to a Cal Fire board agenda, that homeowners will see a hike of $2.33 per habitable structure when the next round of bills are delivered in 2014.

"How much could it raise?" Elliott said. "Where's the limit?"

Mathisen said last year's fees brought in more than $77 million statewide, but that number may fluctuate as appeals are resolved. Officials will not know for some time how much was collected this year.

"We're doing better with this dedicated funding source," he said.

Cal Fire has established FirePreventionFee.org to provide further information on the fee.

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(c)2013 the Daily Press (Victorville, Calif.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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