State-Imposed Fire Fees – A Bad Approach For All Californians
By Diane Dillon
California’s rural county residents will soon be receiving bills from the State of California for fire services under a 2011 legislative scheme known as State Responsibility Area Fees. These new fees are unfair, costly and do not reflect that rural residents — much like urban dwellers — are already paying for local fire services. Unfortunately, efforts to repeal these state-imposed fees have failed in the California Legislature.
The concept of an State Responsibility Area fee is not new. One was instituted several years ago but repealed because of pending litigation against it. Last year, Sacramento budget writers left a huge hole in the state’s lead firefighting agency, CalFIRE. That budget hole was backfilled through a new fire fee on rural property owners. It passed into law with little opportunity for public input even though CalFIRE data shows that responses to fires are costliest in urban areas rather than rural ones.
Implementing the State Responsibility Area fee is also costly. The state will have to pay over $15 million in up-front costs to hire new state workers for this program. Even after the ramp-up of hiring new employees, there is no guarantee that this scheme will pass legal muster. Lawsuits against the latest State Responsibility Area fee are already in the works that will cost the state millions in legal bills.
What is most disturbing is how this fee is being imposed. The Legislature required CalFIRE and the state Board of Equalization to administer the fee – not counties. By all accounts it appears that in developing the list of fee-payers, CalFIRE used data that is incomplete and inaccurate. As a result, thousands of property owners will be receiving bills that they should not pay or are being billed at rates higher than they should be. Neither county assessors, tax collectors nor boards of supervisors had any role in developing this fee nor do they want any part of the implementation of it.
Many rural county residents already pay for local fire services and some have no CalFIRE presence in their areas. These State Responsibility Area fees will result in double or triple taxation with no added benefit.
The fees will also hurt local fire departments by making it nearly impossible to raise local revenues to support local firefighting efforts. In turn, this weakens the state’s mutual aid system that allows it to respond to any type of major disaster, most notably in urban areas.
And although local fire departments and Fire Safe Councils are supposed to receive funding for local fire prevention projects, the state’s Department of Finance has projected that local programs won’t see funding for several years because most of the money collected for at least the first five years will used to cover CalFIRE’s administrative costs to collect the fee.
Unfair, costly and threatening to the state’s overall disaster management program – the Legislature needs to scrap this scheme and do it right away.
Diane Dillon is a Napa County Supervisor and the Immediate Past Chair of the Regional Council of Rural Counties
Filed under: Opinionation
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