California County Opposes Fire Protection Fee

TULARE COUNTY, Calif. — The Tulare County supervisors have voted to send a letter opposing plans by the state to charge fire protection and prevention fees of up to $150 annually to owners of homes and apartment buildings where CAL FIRE provides wildland fire protection.

In Tulare County, that encompasses about 660,000 acres, most of it covering a swath of the Sierra foothills between the Valley floor and federal forests. Communities there include Springville, Three Rivers, Ducor, California Hot Springs, Cove, Badger and Posey. The state responsibility area also includes portions higher in the Sierra.

About 6,400 residences, including houses and individual units in apartment buildings, are in the Tulare County state responsibility area, said Daniel Berlant, a CAL FIRE firefighter and spokesman for the agency.

Back in July, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a budget trailer bill authorizing the fee in order to reduce the drain of fire protection costs from California’s cash-strapped general fund.

“As a result of population increases and urban development in state responsibility areas in recent decades, there has been a significant increase in state costs associated with fire protection in state wildland areas,” Brown said in a statement issued before signing the bill. “This bill recognizes that a portion of the costs borne by the state for wildfire prevention and protection services should be funded by the landowners in these areas. That is expected to save the general fund about $200 million, with $50 million of the fee revenues going to CAL FIRE’s budget, the governor’s statement continued.

Berlant said that since January, CAL FIRE has imposed about $70 million in spending cuts, most of it by reducing the number of firefighters from four to three that are required to operate an engine during fire season.

In fiscal 2010-11, the state spent about $94 million fighting wildfires. But that was a “normal” fire year, Berlant said. The two fiscal years were far busier with major fires, and the state’s firefighting bill was about $274 million in 2009-10 and $500 million the year before that, he said.

During Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, homeowner Dick Echoff, who lives between Porterville and Springville, was the only person to offer public comment on the county’s opposition letter to the state.

“I’m really at a loss where the state comes off imposing a [fee] like this,” he said. “I think the Board of Supervisors needs to word this letter as firmly as possible. Where are their heads? Please express your distaste for this crap,” Echoff said.

“We will,” replied Supervisor Mike Ennis, adding that he would have to pay the fee for his own home if it’s imposed.

The charge would be imposed only for buildings used for or intended to be used for human habitation, according to a report to the supervisors. So businesses’ corrals and storage areas wouldn’t be included, Berlant said.

The state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection has until Sept. 1 to adopt emergency regulations to authorize the fee, which can’t exceed $150. Berlant said the state board members may choose to charge less for some homes based on the types of structures or their locations.

A vote on the matter is scheduled for Aug. 22 in Sacramento.

“The legislation was introduced and passed based on the assertion that structures within state responsibility areas can impair wildland firefighting techniques and increase the risk of fire ignition and subsequent damage to the state’s wildlands and watersheds,” the report to the supervisors continues.

County Supervisor Steve Worthley said the $150 fee limit may be an arbitrary number, and he expressed concern that whatever amount is decided upon may be raised down the road.

The letter to the Board of Forestry and Fire Protections states: “We believe the fee to be an additional tax, levied on property owners who already contribute to fire protection through existing taxes.”

It goes on to say the Tulare County Fire Department is the designated responder to fires involving structures throughout unincorporated portions of the county, and those costs are borne by the county.

As such, Worthley said, many foothill homeowners who would have to pay the fees may never receive service from CAL FIRE if their homes actually catch fire. “It’s nonsensical,” he said.

“Assessing a ‘fee’ on rural property owners amounts to double taxation, and for services provided by their local government,” the supervisors’ letter said.

It adds that the supervisors have been told a referendum to overturn the legislation is being developed in Sacramento and asks the forestry board to postpone implementing the fee.

The five supervisors unanimously approved sending the letter.

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