Maybe there’s a reason the government usually moves at glacier speed. The signing into law of ABX 1-29, the new State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Fee, happened July 2011. With relatively lightning speed, for government work, the SRA fire prevention bills have already arrived — and a lot of them appear to be incorrect.
Dennis Mathisen, information officer at Cal Fire, the organization benefiting from the fees, said,”This is the first billing cycle and so some clean-up is to be expected.”
According to the Fire Prevention Fee Service Center Website, the data for the bills was collected by Cal Fire and a designator fee administrator from assessor records, state Department of Housing and Community Development records, aerial photographs and Geographic Information System maps.
Property owners have received bills for property without habitable structures, bills for property they haven’t owned for 18 months, more than one bill for the same parcel and bills for property they have never owned. According to information at the Cal Fire and State Board of Equalization Websites, if a property owner receives an incorrect bill, they may petition for a redetermination.
“Some of the errors were built in by the legislators,” said El Dorado County Assessor Karl Weiland. “They set the bills for whoever owned the property as of the beginning of fiscal year July 2011, but the taxes are billed to the owner of record on Jan. 1, so even if you sold or transferred the property between January and June, it would show your name on the yearly tax role and you would be billed for the fire prevention fee incorrectly.”
Weiland said that the Assessor’s Office has been fielding hundreds of calls each week since the bills arrived.
“Cal Fire used Parcelquest, a statewide database and a third-party vendor to assemble the data. “The use of aerial photography could show rooftops on land which might be barns or well houses, but that third-party data collectors would interpret as habitable structures. Improvements on property also show up on assessor records and could be interpreted by third-party data collectors as structures.”
Use codes on assessor records used to establish comparative sales data are also being pulled and interpreted to mean what structures are on the property and sometimes, Weiland said, adding the Assessor’s Office data is incorrect. He urges people to call the Assessor’s Office to correct any errors on their records. “The only good thing about this is that it gives us an opportunity to correct our records.”
Weiland holds little hope that the March fire prevention fee bills will be more accurate.”We have to turn in our assessor records on June 30, so the data they will use for the March bill has already been submitted. And if it’s incorrect…”
Where does the money go?
According to ABX 1 29, the reason for the fire prevention fees is to share the burden of fire prevention costs with the owners of habitable structures in state responsibility areas who benefit disproportionately from fire prevention activities. Property owners who already pay for fire protection services receive a $35 discount, but still have to pay $115 for the fire prevention fee.
Does this mean people can expect brush clearing near their property?
“The money goes into a statewide pot to be used for fire prevention and suppression activities,”said Mathisen.
According to the text of AB x 1 29, fire prevention fees go first of all to paying the costs of administration of the board and the department of State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention. All money in excess of the administration costs go to fire prevention activities in the counties with state responsibility areas. The fund will be used to pay the fire prevention fee start-up costs incurred over two years; local assistance grants, grants to Fire Safe Councils, the California Conservation Corps or local certified conservation corps for fire prevention projects; grants to qualified nonprofit organizations for planning, inspections by the department for compliance with defensible space requirements, public education, fire severity mapping and other, unspecified, fire prevention projects. The bill says nothing about crews going out to rural areas and actually doing any fire prevention or fuel reduction activities.
Mathisen said there is no General Fund money available for fire prevention and the fire prevention fee will now provide a reliable source of funding. When asked why people who already pay a fire protection district assessment have to also pay an SRA fee, Mathisen said, “Ninety-five percent of the people receiving fire protection bills are also in a fire protection district, but this fee augments local wildland protection. In a wildland fire, you need as many resources as possible to keep it away from homes. Some of our rural properties are inaccessible by fire engines and you need a hand crew and tankers to fight it. Local agencies don’t always have those resources and would have to pay to use them. The state can call in bulldozers, tankers, helicopters —whatever is needed to fight that fire, at no cost.”
Potential revenues based on $150-$115 fee for approximately 820,000 billed parcels is about $85 million. Off-the-top administration costs calculated at $15 million, start-up costs estimated as $4.8 million for 2011-2012 fiscal year and $5 million for the following year leave about $60 million for fire prevention statewide.
Another part of ABX 129 states that the fee will be adjusted each year. That usually means an increase, but if costs are less than needed during a year, the fee can be rescinded for that year, according to the State Board of Equalization. There is no end year in sight.
Mathisen said, “I would be very surprised if the bill was ever more than $150.”
If your bill is incorrect
“We have been inundated with calls because the bills aren’t accurate,” said Jim Hill, office manager for Inter-County Title Co. ” The most common call we get is from people who sold their property in 2011 and got a fire prevention fee bill for it. They don’t think they should be responsible for the fee.”
“We are getting several hundred calls a week,” said Weiland, “and regardless of whether our data at the Assessor’s Office is at fault or whether it’s other data that is incorrect, we are doing all that we can to help people straighten out their bill. We’ll type memos to attach to their documentation in support; copy deeds, whatever it takes to help.”
The Assessor’s Office now has a database of calls about incorrect bills and Weiland said field officers check it every day to determine what they can do to help the public correct their bills.
Copies of property records, property tax bill, grant deeds or property maps may be required. In the case of one Folsom resident who received an SRA bill for El Dorado County property they haven’t owned since March of 2011, they made copies of the grant deed, the closing of escrow, and assessor’s record. Then they sent all the documentation with a letter to Sen. Ted Gaines. His office told them to not pay the bill.
People with inaccurate bills can file a redetermination petition within 30 days of receiving their bill. The petition and directions can downloaded from the Fire Protection Fee Service Center or the State Board of Equalization Websites. Attach all documentation to prove your case and make copies for your records before mailing the petition to Fire Prevention Fee Service Center, Attn: Petitions, PO Box 2254, Suisun City 94585.
The SRA board is supposed to review the petitions within 60 days and notify the property owner of the decision. A corrected bill will be issued or a decision for reimbursement if the bill has already been paid. The property owner has 30 days to pay the corrected bill or apply for a reimbursement from the Board of Equalization. But, if the bill is not paid, penalties are incurred.
If a fire protection fee is not paid within 30 days, penalties of up to 20 percent of the bill can be added every 30 days the bill goes unpaid. Liens are attached to the name listed as the property owner, not on the property itself, so an unpaid bill will show up against the owner’s credit, even if they don’t own the property any longer, said Hill.
For questions and information about the fire prevention fee, visit the Website at firepreventionfee.org or call the Fire Prevention Fee Service Center at 1-888-310-6447. For questions about payments contact the State Board of Equalization at 1-800-400-7115. For questions about parcels, contact the El Dorado County Assessor’s Office at 530-621-5719 or co.el-dorado.ca.us/Assessor.
The SRA Definition Guide on the Fire Prevention Fee Service Center Website isn’t ready yet, but the bills are.