The Kenwood Press
News: 09/15/2017

Fire fee suspended – now what?

Alec Peters

Now that the controversial Cal Fire fire prevention fee has been suspended by Sacramento lawmakers, where does that leave the many property owners in the county and Sonoma Valley who have paid the annual fee, or those who haven’t kept up with paying and wonder if they are still required to do so?

The California legislature first passed the assessment in 2011, targeting rural properties located within State Responsibility Areas (SRA), parcels where the state says it has primary responsibility for firefighting and fire prevention services. SRAs cover 31 million acres in the state.

This fee (about $150) was levied per “habitable structure” on an SRA parcel, which adds up to over 825,000 properties in California, approximately 26,000 of which are in Sonoma County.

Many have called the fee an unconstitutional tax, and the Cal Fire services it funds redundant when SRAs overlap into areas already served by a fire agency of some kind.

Cal Fire and its supporters have maintained the money has funded a number of important services such fire prevention education, fuel reduction activities, emergency evacuation planning, fire hazard severity planning, and defensible space inspections.

But this past summer the fee situation changed. As part of a deal to extend the state’s program to fight climate change, the fire fee was suspended as of the beginning of the 2017-18 fiscal year, which started July 1. The fee was suspended until the year 2031, the same length of time as the climate change program extension.

Cal Fire said it would continue to provide the same level of fire prevention services to SRAs, but would be funded in some other manner.

After the legislation was passed, the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA) (formerly the Board of Equalization), the agency that has mailed out the fee bills and collected the money the last six years, sent out notices making people understand their obligations.

Bills to property owners for prior fiscal years 2011-12 through 2016-17 that have not been paid are still owed. Any payments that haven’t been made probably have incurred penalties and interest, and those must be paid as well. Property owners were supposed to pay the fee within 30 days of the billing notice.

And, no, just because the fee has ended, it doesn’t mean you get back the money you have already paid in previous years.

However, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) has said it is continuing its class-action litigation against the State of California challenging the constitutionality of the fire fee.

HJTA has argued that the fee is actually a tax, and required two-thirds approval by the legislature when it was first passed. The legislation authorizing the fee was passed with a simple majority vote in 2011.

HJTA, which filed suit in 2012, has also argued that the monies paid have provided no additional or new services to property owners, with many property owners receiving no fire prevention services at all. The association wants the state to be required to give refunds to all of those who have paid their bills under protest.

After years of legal wrangling and efforts by state lawyers to get the case thrown out, a Sacramento Superior Court judge ruled in May of 2016 that the case could proceed as a class action. The litigation is ongoing, with HJTA hoping for a final disposition by the end of the year.

When the fire fee was first imposed, rural residents throughout the state cried foul, arguing that they were being unfairly singled out. The fee was unpopular with both Republican and Democratic legislators who represent districts where constituents had to pay the fee.

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to get rid of the fee or to exempt parcels that already are within the boundaries of a local fire district. But until this summer, the fee remained intact.

Fire districts throughout the county and state have complained that the fire fee has put a damper on local fundraising efforts, and has increased the difficulty of going to voters in their districts asking for approval of funding measures, usually which require two-thirds approval.