Taxpayer group challenges legality of rural Cal Fire fee

10/11/2012

A controversial new fee for fire prevention services in rural areas is being challenged in a lawsuit filed last week by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a conservative activist organization. The fee, which benefits the state agency Cal Fire, is widely opposed by politicians, fire departments and others in Marin and throughout the state.

“The fee has a disproportionate impact on rural communities and, frankly, a disproportionate impact on Northern California,” Assemblyman Jared Huffman of San Rafael said.

The lawsuit challenges the legality of the fee, which only targets certain homeowners, on the grounds that it effectively acts like a tax, but isn’t being called that in order to skirt the two-thirds vote requirement.

“This tax was dreamed up by politicians in Sacramento who are so desperate for revenue that they were willing to ram this through the Legislature without the proper two-thirds vote,” Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, wrote in a press release. “It is our goal to overturn this tax, prevent the politicians from taking more money from hardworking people for a program they were already paying for, and help taxpayers to get a refund from the government.”

The Howard Jarvis group has historically advocated a strong right-wing anti-tax agenda. But on this issue they are finding widespread bipartisan support.

“I can’t stress enough that Cal Fire is a major player in keeping California safe,” Marin County Fire Department Chief Jason Weber, who has been outspoken in his objection to the fee, said. “We couldn’t be effective in the fighting of major fires in California without them. Their budget should be kept whole—but this is probably not the best way of doing it for a lot of reasons.”

In Marin, as in many parts of California, fire protection comes from an overlapping network of departments and jurisdictions. Local town or county-run departments often provide day-to-day services, but wildfire response and other services in the same area are provided by Cal Fire. In total the agency is responsible for more than 200,000 acres in Marin—and a total of 31 million acres of State Responsibility Areas (SRAs) throughout California.

Now the approximately 825,000 homeowners in SRAs throughout the state are being billed for $150 per habitable structure on their lands—be they mansions, trailers or rental units. In places like Marin, where local agencies also provide coverage, that fee is reduced to $115.

The fee was designed to replace historic funding cut from the state’s general fund, Daniel Berlant, a Cal Fire spokesman, said.

Until now homeowners have not had to pay directly for Cal Fire services, though due to overlapping jurisdictions many already pay taxes that contribute to local firefighting agencies. In most of West Marin, for example, landowners pay a $76 parcel tax that helps fund the Marin County Fire Department (MCFD). But because they are in an area that is also part of an SRA, they are now being charged an additional $115 per home.

Competing departments

The new fee offers no relief for those communities that have already elected to pay more for firefighting services. It is also seen as a potential conflict for future fundraising by local departments, some of which have said that they don’t gain any direct benefit from the fee, which bypasses regional coffers and is funneled directly to the state.

“We’re not in favor of this because it basically takes money from local citizens, and we don’t gain anything,” Inverness Volunteer Fire Department Chief Jim Fox said.

The legislation states that the funds generated by the fee must be used for fire prevention activities such as grants, inspections, mapping and on-the-ground projects—not for active fire suppression.

“This is needed because it’s a stable funding source to help us prevent devastating wildfires—and preventing fires helps save lives and homes,” Mr. Berlant said. “When we see fires move through areas, it’s the homes that have good defensible space, the areas where good brush clearing that has been done, that do survive.”

Cal Fire doesn’t work directly in Marin. Instead, they contract with the MCFD to provide the same fire suppression and prevention activities. The state agency contributed about $3 million per year to the approximately $19 million MCFD budget, which enables the local agency to expand personnel and equipment to cover the Cal Fire responsibilities in unincorporated areas.

In the town of Inverness, that means the local fire department is responsible for responding to structure fires and conducting home safety inspections, Mr. Fox said. But in the case of a wildfire, MCFD is in charge on behalf of Cal Fire.

Approximately $1.75 million will be raised each year by the fee charged to the owners of over 15,000 homes that fall within an SRA. But no one has been able to say how—or if—that money will trickle down to local communities.

“I think it’s creating confusion and resentment, and will ultimately make it much, much harder for rural departments to find support in their communities,” Mr. Huffman said.

Added responsibility

Only some individuals and communities have to pay the new fee—but opponents to the fee object that everyone benefits, directly or indirectly, from the natural resources protected by Cal Fire.

“People who don’t live in an SRA also get a benefit from infrastructure that is in an SRA and needs to be protected,” Fire Marshall Scott Albert of the Marin County Fire Department said, offering the example that San Francisco’s water supply would be damaged if a fire burned through the rural Hetch Hetchy watershed. “Why shouldn’t they have to contribute as well?”

But advocates say all taxpayers contribute to the state’s firefighting budget indirectly, through the general fund. However, increasing numbers of people are moving to rural communities where state agencies, as well as local agencies, would be forced to respond in the case of a catastrophic wildfire. This fee is designed to reflect the greater benefit these homeowners receive from Cal Fire services. 

“What the new law addresses are the benefits those individuals in homes in the SRA receive that the rest of the state’s residents do not,” Cal Fire Director Chief Ken Pimlott wrote in a guest column in the Marin Independent Journal.

Because the fee applies to residents throughout the state, another main objection is that it doesn’t reflect the regional differences in fire danger. Landowners along the damp coast of Del Norte County are treated the same as those in the tinder-dry south. And comparatively small portions of southern counties fall within an SRA at all.

“Places like San Diego and Riverside should not get a pass while rural Northern California pays the tab for the whole state’s fire protection,” Mr. Huffman said.

Not if but when

Despite the complaints about the details of the fee, local politicians and firefighters all agree on the importance of the services provided by Cal Fire. The funding MCDF receives from the agency makes a big difference to fire services available in Marin. “It’s huge for us, because we’re already pretty bare bones,” Mr. Albert said. “We’re running two-man engine companies, for God’s sake.”

And being prepared is vital. Despite dedicated efforts, a large wildfire is considered inevitable in Marin County, where homes are embedded in a highly flammable landscape.

Historically, Mount Tamalpais burned once or twice each decade, and the rest of the county likely burned with similar frequency. Now, fires are rare. But the flip-side of that coin is that the forest doesn’t get its regular cleansing of dead branches, trees and bushes. So when a fire does spark, it has the potential to get very big, very fast.

Because of this, fire prevention is key. For homeowners, this means maintaining defensible space around homes and being extra careful in hot weather. For local fire departments this means building and maintaining fuel breaks, and having staff and equipment at the ready.

“The expression ‘not if but when’ is commonly used in the industry to really point out the fact that it will happen again,” Mike Giannini, MCFD spokesman, said. He added that when weather conditions are hot, dry and windy there is only so much firefighters can do to stop a blaze.

“The most recent example was the [Mount] Vision Fire,” Mr. Giannini said. “Even with a lot of resources there wasn’t a whole lot we could do until the wind died down. Mother Nature wins when the forces are working against us in that respect.”