PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA

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Cal Fire may change State Responsibility Area

By From page A1 | March 13, 2013

Thousands of El Dorado County homeowners could get relief from the state Fire Prevention Fee if proposed changes to state responsibility area boundaries are approved by Cal Fire and the State Natural Resources Agency.

If the new maps are fully signed off by July 1, 2013, the relief would begin in 2014.

Proposed changes to State Responsibility Area boundaries in El Dorado Hills, Cameron Park and Rancho Murieta are reflected in draft maps recently distributed to four local fire agencies for approval.

The “2013 Focused Review,” was conceived at Cal Fire headquarters in Sacramento based on the volume of phone calls and appeals for redetermination from property owners in specific areas. It was executed at Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit in Camino, according to Unit Forester and Pre-Fire Management Division Chief Tom Tinsley, who led the investigation.

The proposed maps address “errors and inconsistencies” in SRA boundaries, said Tinsley.

The focused review is independent of the regular, five-year SRA boundary reviews, the last of which was in 2010.

The El Dorado Hills Fire Board has already approved the proposed maps and posted them on its Website. More than 1,300 El Dorado Hills parcels would be transitioned from state to local responsibility.

The Mountain Democrat had not received the Rancho Murieta and Cameron Park maps at press time. A follow-up story will break down the affected neighborhoods as soon as the maps are available.

Fire officials contacted for this story were optimistic the changes would be adopted by July 1.

The $150 “Fire Prevention Fee” is assessed annually on habitable structures in State Responsibility Areas. It is not assessed in Local Responsibility Areas.

Roughly half of the parcels within the in El Dorado Hills Fire District boundaries are currently in the SRA.

The state acknowledges the role of its local counterparts by discounting the $150 fee to $115 for parcels within a local fire district.

Many local residents hit the roof when the bill for fiscal year 2011-12 arrived in late 2012. The 2013 bills, scheduled to arrive in April, will likely provoke another round of angst.

The proposed map changes do not exempt property owners from the first two billings.

The fee was established by Assembly bill ABX 129, ostensibly to offset $85 million in budget cuts to Cal Fire, according to Cal Fire spokesman Dennis Mathison. The bill passed on straight party lines with less than a two-thirds majority, and was signed into law in July 2011.

Cal Fire information officer Daniel Berlant discussed the fee with the Mountain Democrat in September 2012, and blamed legislative delays and start-up logistics for pushing the initial bill mailing into the fall of 2012.

The fee quickly became fodder for the local Tea Parties, political columnists and critics at large who called it a thinly veiled tax and an attack by the Democratic state government on the largely conservative rural residents.

Local fire officials broke ranks with Cal Fire and joined in the criticism. El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts predicted that the fee would hinder efforts by cash-strapped rural fire districts to get funding measures approved.

District 6 Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Rocklin, coauthored unsuccessful legislation to repeal the fee last year.

District 1 state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, sponsored similarly fated legislation last year, and again in January, then one-upped his wife with SB 125, which would exempt property owners who reside in a local fire district. He followed in February with SB 147, which would exempt property owners with household income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the fee on the grounds that it’s actually a tax and, as such, required a two-thirds vote in the Legislature.

The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution opposing the fee and signed onto the suit.

Shortly after taking office, District 1 Supervisor Ron Mikulaco met with Tinsley and Camino Unit Chief Kelly Keenan, who showed the new supervisor the draft maps. Mikulaco recalls being upset that the Four Seasons subdivision remained in the SRA, and encouraged the chiefs to expand the review to other areas in his district.

During the State Board of Equalization’s January meeting Deputy Director David Gau summarized the first round of fire fee collections:
• 753,250 bills issued
• 70,018 appeals filed
• $88.3 million total billing
• $68 million collected

70,018 appeals were filed:
• 6,338 were granted
•41,715 were denied
• 21,965 were pending review

Currently, fire prevention fees can only be spent on prevention efforts in SRAs. Recent legislation proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown would allow the state to spend the fees in “areas that immediately threaten state responsibility areas,” including LRAs, said Mathison.

The January revelation that Cal Fire had placed $3.6 million in legal settlements into a special account, rather than depositing it in the state treasury, created another public relations problem, exacerbated by the $20 million state parks scandal, which was much in the news at the time.

Gov. Brown played down the discovery, but State Finance Department Deputy Director H.D. Palmer told the Mountain Democrat that the state Natural Resources Agency has requested an audit of the settlements, which should be complete by June.

Parcel owners who feel they were billed in error have 30 days to contest the fee with a “petition for redetermination.” Instructions are available the Jarvis protest Website, firetaxprotest.com.

Cal Fire has established a hotline for questions: 888-310-6447, and a Website with information on the fee: FirePreventionFee.org.

EDH villages affected
The proposed maps drop more than 1,300 El Dorado Hills parcels from the SRA. The following villages are affected:

Francisco Oaks, Crown Valley, Promontory Villages 1 through 5 (north of the SMUD power lines), Governor’s West, Stoneridge, Parkview Heights, Oakridge, Serrano Village J4, Hollow Oaks.

Maps of the affected areas before and after the proposed changes can be found at EDHfire.com.

Mike Roberts

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