Fire fees irk coastal landowners

By Emily Jo Cureton, The Triplicate September 19, 2012 06:57 pm

‘I couldn’t start fire out here if I had to’

Collections of a new state fire fee are fanning flames of dissent, from Del Norte’s foggiest driveways to Sacramento’s highest offices. 

Mike Mealue got a bill earlier this month for $115, payable to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Calfire, sent to his address on Old Mill Road, one of approximately 6,000 habitable structures in Del Norte subject to a State Responsibility Area fire prevention fee. The controversial fee became law last year and aims to raise a projected $84.4 million for fire prevention campaigns across the state. 

Like an estimated 95 percent of Californians living within the SRA, Mealue qualified for a $35 discount on the new $150 fee because he already pays for local firefighters to respond should flames threaten his house, which is just a hop and a skip from the beach, more often than not shrouded in fog, dappled with dew or otherwise wetted through. 

“I’m never going to see state firefighters here,” he said, echoing the sentiments of similarly piqued residents in coastal areas of Del Norte.

“I’m paying a fee for a potential service that I’m never going to see ... I have one of the best defensible spaces known to man. It’s called fog. And an average temperature in the summertime of 58 degrees. I live next to a field and I couldn’t start a fire out here right now if I had to,” Mealue said. 

The SRA covers most of occupied Del Norte, including higher, drier, and much more fire-prone areas like Big Flat, Gasquet and Hiouchi.

The bill sent to Mealue and about 850,000 other Californians came from the state’s Board of Equalization, a member of which has come under fire for leading a charge against the fee he’s charged with collecting. 

Republican Board of Equalization member and state Sen. George Runner’s high-profile campaign to block the fire fee has fellow policymakers and Democratic leaders saying he and the state board he serves are responsible for enforcing, not opposing state law. California is the only state with a publicly elected tax board, which collects sales, fuel, alcohol and tobacco taxes as well as various fees.

Runner said the Democrat-controlled Legislature and governor engaged in an “illegal money-grab” when they voted last year to charge rural residents with homes in the SRA a $150 fee. 

Mealue plans to pay, but not without appealing it first. If he takes longer than one month to send a check, there’ll be an $11.50 penalty plus half a percent in interest every month after that.

Appeals must also be filed within 30 days, and will be fielded by Calfire, not the tax board. 

As of last week, 2,793 appeals had been filed.

Nearly two-thirds of those, or about 1,800, were filed in protest that the fee is illegal. Another 11 percent challenged the state’s calculation of the number of livable structures on the property; 9 percent disputed ownership of the property; and 7 percent contended the home is not within the state responsibility area covered by the fee.

According to Calfire spokesman Daniel Berlant, appealing to Calfire based on legality won’t hold water.

“(The appeal for redetermination) is not for, ‘I don’t want to pay it,’ or, ‘I don’t believe it’s justified.’ It’s for if the resident believes there was a mistake or doesn’t believe they are in the SRA,” Berlant said. 

Satellite maps of the SRA are available through Calfire’s webpage or just google “State Responsibility Area.”

Berlant added: “Our job and our requirement from the legislation that was passed is to implement the fee as the Legislature passed it.”

Runner told the Associated Press last week that he is appropriately balancing his dual responsibilities, as a tax collector and a state senator, by opposing the fee even as he helps collect it. He said he represents 9 million people, and about half the new fire fee bills are going to people in his sprawling district, which covers most of inland California from San Bernardino to the Oregon border.

“I don’t know that anyone could point to anything that we have done other than to enhance the responsibilities that the Legislature has given us,” he said, referring to his own activities. “We make it real clear: We tell people to pay it. We don’t want people to get caught up in penalties and interest.”

He and other opponents say the fee is actually an illegal tax that should have required a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature rather than the majority vote it received. He is also helping the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association line up plaintiffs for the planned lawsuit seeking to overturn the fee, said the group’s president, Jon Coupal.

With months left to go this fire season, Calfire already has spent $132 million on large, out-of-control wildfires that can rage for weeks, said spokeswoman Janet Upton. That is well above the $93 million allotted for such fires in the state budget, and the balance will come out of the state’s budget reserve.

“If prevention can prevent even a fraction of these large damaging fires, it’s worth the $9.58 that homeowners are paying each month,” Upton said.

“I kind of understand the fee if you were living in a high fire zone,” Mealue said, referencing his friends living off of South Fork Road. 

He was hopeful the legal challenge would be successful. 

“I don’t think this is going to stand. I think they are going to have to take a more reasonable, case by case approach, rather than a blanket tax on anyone that owns a house in California.”

A bill to repeal the fee died at the end of the legislative session earlier this month. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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