The best way to change a law is not to disobey it, but first to obey it and then challenge it. Such is the counsel regarding the state-imposed fire fee for residents who live in State Responsibility Areas under the jurisdiction of Cal Fire.
The $150 levy per habitable structure was approved by a simple majority of the state legislature last year, and the bills began arriving over the past two months — mostly to those property owners in rural areas.
Opponents have called the state’s action an illegal tax hike which, under the constitution, would have required a two-thirds vote of the legislature. Instead, the “fee” as constituted was approved by a simply majority of the legislature.
In a recent move, the “El Dorado County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to join the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) class action lawsuit seeking to overturn the state fire fee,” announced a prepared statement from the county’s Chief Administrative Office Wednesday.
The board has discussed the issue a number of times since July and more than once advised irate constituents to pay first and join a concerted effort to overturn the law later.
“Hundreds of residents have contacted the county to voice their frustration about the fire tax,” said board chairman John Knight. “The Board of Supervisors can’t sit idly by while the state is running a legalized extortion scheme on rural residents,” the statement said.
Cal Fire, in effect, is the statewide fire department responsible for public lands and areas that generally have no other fire protection, that is, mostly rural or rural-suburban regions. It does not cover areas within city boundaries or lands controlled by the federal government. The official Cal Fire Website describes the fee in the following:
“This fee will fund a variety of important fire prevention services within the SRA including brush clearance around communities on public lands, along roadways and evacuation routes; and activities to improve forest health so the forest can better withstand wildfire.”
El Dorado County, like other foothill and semi-rural counties is composed of areas and regions that are served by local fire protection districts as well as by Cal Fire. Homeowners in such areas receive a $35 “discount” from the $150 fee. Opponents of the fee have challenged the accuracy of some of the maps Cal Fire developed to define its SRAs relative to local jurisdictions.
Opposition has also been based on what the above description does not say. That is, the fee pays for certain fire prevention activities but does not enhance fire fighting or fire suppression activities on the ground. In addition, there is widespread belief that the law will simply funnel revenue into the state’s General Fund and not directly to Cal Fire.
El Dorado County Auditor-Controller Joe Harn explained that the county faces a dilemma similar to that of local citizens. The departments of transportation, environmental management and chief administrative office control properties that include “habitable structures,” Harn noted in a recent e-mail.
“I paid the $115 fee for DOT based on DOT’s request. I would have refused to pay it except County Counsel Lou Green asked me to pay at least one of the fees so that we would be in better standing to sue the State over the fee,” Harn wrote. “On Tuesday, the Board asked me to pay the other two fees.”
Wednesday’s announcement described the county’s land holdings subject to the fire fee. They include parcels that have been purchased for road right of way and the homeless facility on Perks Court at Highway 50 and Missouri Flat Road.
There are also residential units adjacent to the county’s corporation yard on Headington Road and at the Union Mine disposal site in El Dorado for which the county received bills for the fire fee.
“The county filed a Petition for Redetermination, and submitted letters to state officials indicating the county’s payment of the fee was provided under protest,” the statement continued.
“The county’s letter argues that the fire fee is actually a tax which requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature… For this reason, the County of El Dorado pays the Fire Prevention Fee under protest and reserves all rights to pursue a refund of said amount through judicial action or otherwise.”
Other counties and local jurisdictions are expected to join in the HJTA complaint as plaintiffs in the near future, the statement noted.
As of late last week over 450,000 bills have been sent out, and about 170,000 property owners have responded, sending nearly $20 million in to the state’s coffers, according to an update from George Runner, the county’s representative on the State Board of Equalization.
“Thousands of Californians have filed paperwork to officially protest the tax, and tens of thousands have failed to pay at all. As of Oct. 19, Cal Fire reports having received 18,321 appeals, with more than 5,399 arriving in just the last week,” Runner’s statement said.
Noting that more than 70,000 bills have gone past-due without being paid, Runner stressed the importance of timeliness. A fierce opponent of the fee, he has consistently urged its elimination — through legal and appropriate means.
“It’s an illegal tax, and I fully expect the courts will strike it down,” said Runner. “But until then, if you receive a bill, you ought to pay it. Taxpayers who refuse to pay could face penalties as high as 20 percent a month,” he cautioned.
Information about the lawsuit is available at firetaxprotest.org. Additional information about the fee including a list of recommended actions regarding payment is available on the county’s Website at edcgov.us.
Contact Chris Daley at 530-344-5063 or [email protected] Follow @CDaleyMtDemo.