Led by District 2 Supervisor Ray Nutting, El Dorado County’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday expressed outrage at the state’s newly mandated $150 fee for fire prevention services in mostly rural areas.
Nutting issued a prepared statement late Monday describing the law and its expected impact on more than 51,000 local property owners.
“The public should know what’s coming.” Nutting wrote. “This ‘fee’ is nothing but a scheme allowing the State of California to pick the pockets of rural residents.”
Authorized last year by the governor and legislature, the State Fire Prevention Fee targets “habitable structures” throughout State Responsibility Areas under the jurisdiction of the CalFire agency. The plan creates a revenue stream as part of the state budget process, and opponents view it as an undisguised money-grab to bolster California’s General Fund. Many also consider it a tax rather than a fee and as such should be unconstitutional under California law. Tax increases require a two-thirds vote of the legislature while fee impositions do not.
Parcels located in local fire districts as well in the larger SRAs receive a $35 credit toward the $150 fee. Under the law, bills will go out within a few weeks and then again next March. Thus property owners will pay twice within the same fiscal year but receive less than two years of “service.”
El Dorado County Assessor Karl Weiland told the board that “the issue is not well understood by residents” and noted that its “magnitude is pretty intimidating.We need to determine how to help our constituents.”
Nutting explained that maps of the SRAs used to identify affected parcels are inappropriate to the task because they are designed for fire protection activities rather than parcel or habitable structure identification.
“We’ll want to position the county government to help residents through their appeal process as best we can,” Nutting’s statement noted.
Several board members half-jokingly suggested a campaign of ”civil disobedience,” that is, urging residents not to pay the fee when it comes due. However, cooler heads prevailed when chairman John Knight said, “I won’t advise anyone not to pay a bill.”
Instead supervisors directed County Counsel to begin crafting letters of support for counties challenging the law and to consider joining in a future lawsuit or action to overturn the fee.
Auditor-Controller Joe Harn urged a campaign of letter writing to the governor and legislator even while noting, “I’m afraid we’d be wasting paper products.”
Jack Sweeney, District 3, said “letters are nice, but I’d favor a recall of all legislators.” He went on to describe the situation as a battle between “blue and red” areas, that is urban versus rural interests and chastised urban representatives for complaining “that we’re playing in their parks.”
Weiland described two features of the law that are particularly “obnoxious.” First, he said residents only have 30 days to process the necessary documentation for their property and to request an appeal of their status. The state usually grants 60 days when implementing new legislation, he said.
Second, he explained that a failure to comply in a timely manner, that is, to pay the fee results in a heavy penalty.
“It’s 20 percent of the total for each 30 days of unpaid time,” he said. “I urge the board to stress to the legislature that it’s unfair and burdensome, especially the first time (the law takes effect).”
Pioneer Fire Protection District Board Member Ripley Howe expressed grave concern for small independent fire districts.
“When our residents see ‘fire fees’ they blame us,” Howe said. “We need to get the word out or it will make it virtually impossible for districts to pass any future fees.”
Chief Administrative Officer Terri Daly recommended that the fire fee issue be on the board’s weekly agenda until the county fully studies its options and prepares its responses.
“The Governor and Legislature have overspent for years, and are now forcing us to write personal checks to cover their recklessness. Next we’ll be required to feed and house the King’s army,” Nutting’s statement concluded.
The state has set up a Website with additional information about the fee and the appeal process at firepreventionfee.org.
Contact Chris Daley at 530-344-5063 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @CDaleyMtDemo.