On Aug. 13, the state will begin sending bills to residents living in state responsibility area to the tune of a $150 fee per habitable structure in order to generate money for Cal Fire. But many county officials — and some state officials — are opposed to the bill.
The bills will be sent out to counties in alphabetical order, with about 52,000 parcels of land in El Dorado County being affected, said County Assessor Karl Weiland. That number is where the problems begin, Weiland said.
The county keeps a “unit count” of how many structures are on a parcel, so that houses with multiple structures in the same area can be sold at comparable prices, Weiland said. “It was never designed for a use other than that purpose. We don’t have a requirement to keep it.” The other 57 counties in the state may not even have that, making it much harder to determine how many habitable structures on are the parcel. El Dorado County is the fourth largest county being affected, Weiland said.
“You could have a house, a shell or roof, for making improvement, and they could assess that for a structure. You’d have to challenge that and send more information,” Weiland said. “Cal Fire should have to prove it’s a habitable structure. And at some point, for unresolved matters, they’ll have to send it to the assessor or building committee.”
Daniel Berlandt, spokesman for Cal Fire, said the state estimates a gain of about $84 million. There are about 58,000 habitable structures in El Dorado County, which he said is “anything you can live in, rather than something like a garage or out building.”
Controller-Auditor Joe Harn also has issues with the fee.
“The SRA Fee is illegal as it is being implemented by the state,” Harn wrote in an e-mail to the Mountain Democrat. “It can be appropriate for the government to charge its citizens a fee for services under limited circumstances, when the fee relates to the cost of providing services to the individual receiving the services. In this case, the SRA Fee is being levied by the state in an arbitrary manner without any concern for fairness or any concern about the relationship between the fee and the cost of providing the service.”
The fee also affects those who are under Cal Fire jurisdiction — the State Responsibility Area — but also under local fire departments. They do, however, receive a $35 per structure reduction.
Retired Sen. George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization, agrees with Harn that the fee is not legal.
“I’ve opposed this new tax from the beginning, because I believe it is unconstitutional. The governor and Legislature simply called it a ‘fee’ to avoid the two-thirds vote requirement designed to protect taxpayers,” Runner wrote in a newsletter. “As soon as possible, I intend to join a lawsuit asking the courts to halt this illegal money-grab as soon as possible. Unfortunately, no one can file the lawsuit to stop the tax until after the bills go out.”
That attempt to stop the legislation was spearheaded by state Sen. Ted Gaines.
“Despite my efforts to stop it by referendum and legislation, the illegal fire tax is being assessed on more than 825,000 people starting this month,” Gaines wrote in a newsletter. “This tax should have been subject to a two-thirds vote in the Legislature just like every other tax, but the Democrats called it a fee to get around that requirement. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association will file a lawsuit disputing the fee’s legality and I hope it gets overturned ASAP.”
Harn’s other problem with the fee is the maps used to determine the SRA, which Weiland also said are out of date.
“The state intends to levy the fee in certain Serrano neighborhoods but not other Serrano neighborhoods because the maps being used to levy the fee are wrong,” Harn wrote. “The state knows the maps that are being used to levy the fee are wrong, but the state is taking no significant effort to correct the maps because correcting the maps would cost the state money. A quick review of the state’s maps indicate that a number of individuals will be charged this fee inappropriately in Diamond Springs and El Dorado Hills. Further, the fee will hurt our county’s rural residents and many of them already pay higher property taxes than normal because of voter approved special taxes that go to their local fire department.”
Harn cited the same problems when the state attempted to institute the same fee as $70 in 2004. That fee “died in committee” in the Legislature, said Weiland, but “passed a year ago.”
Due to the timing of the passage and collection, Weiland said the goal is to have the bills all out by November and the fees collected by the end of December for fiscal year 2011-12. That fiscal year “ended July 1,” Weiland said. “They are two months late for last year’s.” In March, another bill will go out.
Unlike Gaines and Runner, who see the fee as useless, Berlandt believes the fee to be necessary for Cal Fire. “It’s critical. It’s stable funding for public safety,” he said.
Harn takes a cynical approach to the fee.
“This state fee is just a thinly veiled attempt by legislators from the state’s urban areas to balance the state budget on the backs of the state’s rural residents.”