Fire prevention fee ignites lawsuit, opposition gets watered down

RANCHO SANTA FE — The state of California is billing some San Diego property owners for fire prevention fees, despite more than a year of heavy opposition from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and local fire districts. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) recently filed a class action lawsuit, claiming that the fee is an illegal tax, and is waiting for a hearing to be scheduled.

The $150 annual fire prevention fee applies to 100,814 property owners in unincorporated portions of San Diego County.

The fee will go towards fire prevention activities carried out by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.

Since the fee’s passage in 2011, the San Diego Board of Supervisors has fought against the fee, claiming that the county already pays for fire protection from Cal Fire and that the fee is a double or even a triple tax for property owners.

“The state wants to tax you again because Sacramento had failed to balance its budget and adequately fund Cal Fire, and is looking to property owners for a bailout.

I am as outraged as you are about this blatant money grab,” said District 2 Board Supervisor Dianne Jacob in a letter to her constituents posted on her website this October.

Despite opposition efforts, the bills have been hitting residents’ mailboxes throughout the state since October.

The county has not yet received a bill for the fee, but anticipates receiving the bill any day now, according to Jacob’s Communications Advisor Steve Schmidt.

The fire prevention fee charges property owners $150 for each habitable structure within areas where the state is financially responsible for preventing and fighting wildland fires, known as SRAs (State Responsibility Areas.)

Assembly bill ABX1 29, which enacted the fee, states that owners of livable structures within the SRA “receive a disproportionally larger benefit from fire prevention activities” than other California residents.

The fee is separate from residents’ property tax. Residents who pay for fire protection from a second agency, like a local fire district, are eligible for a $35 discount on the fire prevention fee.

The fee is intended to provide a more stable and sustainable revenue source for Cal Fire, according to Cal Fire spokesperson Dennis Mathisen. Previously, California’s General Fund paid for fire prevention activities, but the economy’s downturn has reduced the resources available to Cal Fire, he said.

By preventing fires, the state will be reducing the costs of fighting fires, said Mathisen. “The goal is to prevent fires all together or minimize them to reduce the cost.”

George Runner, one of the members of the Board of Equalization which collects the fee for the state, sponsors the website calfirefee.com, which opposes the fee. On the site, Runner claims that the fire fee “Will not result in increased fire protection. Instead, the money collected will take the place of funding that was diverted to other government programs.”

San Diego already provides $15.5 million annually for fire protection in rural areas, $10.2 million of which is contracted with Cal Fire. These funds contribute towards Cal Fire’s support services when fighting large San Diego fires and also enables backcountry fire stations to provide year round service, according to Schmidt.

After the fee was first passed in 2011, Supervisor Jacob sent a letter to the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection and requested that San Diego be exempt from the fees based on the funds the county already pays for fire protection.

The Board of Forestry and Fire Protection did not respond to the letter and the county was not granted an exemption.

Board Supervisors have also argued that property owners already pay for fire protection through state property taxes, and some residents also pay local fire districts’ additional benefit fees.

Furthermore, the fees may not even go towards fire protection activities in San Diego.

“It is estimated that $10 million would be collected from San Diego annually (from the fee),” said District 3 Board Supervisor Pam Slater-Price in her Aug. 2011 newsletter. “There is no guarantee that $10 million will be reinvested back into San Diego.”

The bill did not specify how the funds will be divided between the communities within the SRA, and as such does not guarantee that communities will receive funding in proportion to the fees collected from its local residents.

Cal Fire has not established how the fees will be allocated, but will rely on recommendations from fire teams working throughout the state, said Mathisen.

After the fees have been collected, residents can look to San Diego’s annual Fire Plan in the fire prevention section of Cal Fire’s website and contact local fire stations to find out if the fees have contributed towards fire prevention activities locally, Mathisen said.

Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District Chief Tony Michel said that the district has already established fire prevention activities and education and does not believe that funds from the fire prevention fee will be allocated to the area.

“If there are benefits (from the fire fee), the districts will work together to get those benefits for the community, but it will be difficult,” he said.

Because the county has not yet received a bill for the fire fee, it is unclear if the county is able to take legal action against the fire fee.

Numerous counties have already been billed for the fire fee, including San Bernardino, Kern, and San Luis Obispo.

The HJTA has filed a class action lawsuit against Cal Fire and the Board of Equalization to overturn the fire fee.

The lawsuit was filed in October on behalf of all California property owners who are being billed. The HJTA asserts that the fee is really a tax and therefore should have been approved by a two-thirds vote in the Legislature.

If the class action suit is successful, it could qualify approximately 825,000 property owners for a refund of the fire fee.

At this time, Cal Fire and the Board of Equalization have not responded to the lawsuit and the HJTA is waiting for Sacramento Superior Court to set up a hearing date, said HJTA Executive Director Kris Vosburgh. “We’ll do everything we can to get you your money back,” said Vosburgh.

Not all San Diegans have opposed the fee. Senator Christine Kehoe, who represents District 39 covering San Diego’s coast, voted in favor of the fee when it came before the state legislature in 2011.

Calls to Kehoe’s office were not returned.

Some Rancho Santa Fe residents believe that the fee is worth the fire prevention activities.

“Above all you have the knowledge that you’re doing something to protect your home and your family,” said Catherine Barry, co-founder of the real estate company Barry Estates, Inc. and a Rancho Santa Fe resident since 1977.

Cal Fire is responsible for protecting over 31 million acres of SRAs across California. To see which homes fall within the SRA, visit firepreventionfee.org/.

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