Triplicate Staff

Thousands of Del Norte property owners will soon begin receiving bills for a new annual fire-protection fee, which has ignited outrage among rural residents statewide and will likely lead to a lawsuit seeking to overturn the surcharge.

The fee, passed by Democrats in the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, is intended to raise an estimated $84 million in its first year for fire-prevention efforts. The annual charge can run as high as $150 per habitable structure for property owners, although there is a $35 discount for those who already pay a local tax for fire protection, as most people affected in Del Norte do.

Del Norte County Supervisor David Finigan echoed the sentiments of many rural officials, saying that this controversial fee is in fact a tax that skirted a requisite two-thirds vote of the legislature.

"CalFire is saying this is going to help pay for additional education and programs, as well as the administration for those programs. That's just a bunch of smoke. Taxpayers are already paying for state fire programs through their income tax and locally, most people are already paying for protection in the Crescent Fire Protection District ... We are being triple-taxed," Finigan said.

The first bills went out Monday and will have been issued to more than 825,000 property owners by year's end. They are being sent to counties in alphabetical order.

In April, North Coast Assemblyman Wes Chesbro introduced legislation that would tweak the fee to account for regional fire risk. The bill is still being reviewed by committees.

"I'm against the fee," Chesbro told the Triplicate in May. "It's inherently unfair, but because the Governor supports it, it's unlikely that we'll be able to get it repealed, so I'm trying to make it more fair. The main unfairness I'm focusing on is that the fee is not based on fire risk or on the cost of fighting a fire. A one-room cabin in Gasquet would pay the same fee as someone in a million-dollar home in dry chaparral of Santa Barbara. There is something fundamentally wrong about that."

The fee was imposed on those who own property within the 31 million rural acres covered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, an area that includes about one-third of the state.

Fire danger there is growing more extreme, according to a recent University of California, Merced, study prepared for the California Energy Commission. Climate change, development and changes to the landscape may double the fire risk to rural homes over the next 40 years, researchers found. They predict the greatest increase in risk in Northern California's foothills and mountains.

Brown sought the fee mostly to help close the state's budget deficit, calling it "a fee consistent with the 'beneficiary pays principle'" in his signing message. If additional money can be raised and dedicated to CalFire, he reasoned, a similar amount could go to other state services that have experienced deep budget cuts.

The fee will help prevent more spending cuts for state firefighters, department spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Over the last 18 months, the department has dealt with an $80 million budget cut by hiring 700 fewer seasonal firefighters, closing an air base in Fresno and mothballing engines and dozers. The fee will pay for the department's existing fire-prevention efforts, including thinning brush and trees and clearing around homes.

Soon after the bills go out, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association plans to file a lawsuit to have the fee declared unconstitutional.

Association president Jon Coupal said the fee is actually a tax, which requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to enact. The fire fee passed on simple majority votes in the Assembly and Senate, without support from any Republican lawmakers.

The fees will be collected by the state's Board of Equalization, which estimated the cost of assessments and collections would be about $5 million annually.

Property owners can ask for "redetermination" if they can prove, for instance, that their property is not in the state responsibility area and they should not have to pay. They also can argue that they are entitled to the $35 discount because they pay a local fire district tax or that they are being billed for more habitable structures than they actually own.

The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Counsel ruled that it qualifies as a fee because it directly pays for specific state services. Democratic lawmakers said they also followed a recommendation from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office to levy a fee on homeowners who directly benefit from the state's firefighting efforts in rural areas.

Berlant said the state fire department would face a gap of $85 million in its current year budget if the lawsuit succeeds in overturning the fee, forcing more service cuts.

Triplicate staff writer Emily Jo Cureton and the Associated Press contributed to this report.