Rural residents hot after getting $150 fire service bill

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Burchell Road resident Don Schneider lives within easy access of a South Santa Clara County Fire station, but he’s still one of thousands of Californians getting slapped with an annual $150 “fire prevention fee.”

Gilroy home and building owners such as Schneider who reside within State Responsibility Areas (SRAs) recently received mail notices alerting them of a forthcoming fee, which is kicking in for the first time this year thanks to Assembly Bill X1 29. The measure, signed in July 2011 by Gov. Jerry Brown, will effect affect some 825,000 Californians. It defines SRAs as “rural” areas where the state of California is financially responsible for the prevention and suppression of wildfires.

“Just the way this whole thing has been presented leaves us with some doubts,” said Schneider. “The legality of the whole thing. It leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.”

Schneider has lived for more than 30 years on Burchell Road, which meanders northwest just outside of Gilroy city limits off Hecker Pass Highway.

The new law – which is already facing a lawsuit from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association – applies to all habitable structures that exist within an SRA, but exempts lands within city boundaries or in federal ownership. The money is collected by the State Board of Equalization and goes directly to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, known as CalFIRE.

The fee will generate an estimated $84 million annually to fund a variety of fire prevention services for SRAs, including brush clearance around communities on public lands, roadways and evacuation routes. The fee will also fund activities that improve forest health, fire break construction, defensible space inspections, fire prevention engineering, emergency evacuation planning, fire prevention education, fire hazard severity mapping and fire-related law enforcement.

Homeowners who live within the boundaries of a local fire protection agency – about 90 percent of Californians slated to receive the bill – will get a $35 discount per habitable structure, according to the Fire Prevention Fee Service Center.

Possible discounts aside, the new “fee” is still fanning the flames of contention.

“People in the forest and hills – where it’s really hard for them to get to, yeah I could see that,” said one resident who asked to remain anonymous. “If I was in an area like that, I probably wouldn’t have to say too much. But I have a feeling this is unconstitutional. They can’t just blatantly say, ‘we’re gonna take every single person who is in a rural area … and we’re gonna charge them.’”

She’s certainly isn’t isolated in her viewpoint.

On Oct. 3, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a class action lawsuit against the California Department of Forestry and the Board of Equalization. The association claims the fee is a direct violation of Proposition 13, known as the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation. The claim is still making its way through court.

Chief Steven Woodill with the South Santa Clara County Fire District in Morgan Hill says he has not received as many phone complaints as units in other counties. Woodill said he supports the budget passed by the governor, and therefore supports the new fee.

“It is justified on the fact that it’s in the governor’s budget,” he said. “I have no opinion here, other than it is in the governor’s budget, adopted and passed by the legislature.”

Assemblymembers Bill Monning (D-Carmel) and Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) voted in favor of the measure.

Executive Director Jennifer Scheer with the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau said the organization is encouraging its members to submit their payments “under protest.” That way people will at least get their money back if the legislation is overturned, she said.

Scheer says the Farm Bureau has “pretty big concerns” about the new bill, especially for the sake of the ranching community.

“Some of these folks have eight, 10 or even more habitable residences on their property,” she said, giving an example of one woman who runs an agritourism facility with a number of cottages on her property.

“At $150 a unit, that really adds up,” Scheer noted. “Property taxes are already one of the larger expenses for ranchers.”

She underlines a major argument being touted by the bill’s opponents, who argue the measure is simply a tax passed under the guise of a “fee.” This would be illegal under Proposition 26, or the “stop hidden taxes” initiative. The measure requires that any new fee, charge, levy or tax that broadly benefits the public be passed by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.  

Assembly Bill X1 29 passed with only a majority vote, which is why “we don’t really think it’s a legal fee,” said Williams. “It’s a tax…people within the livestock-producing community have raised big concerns about it.”

This argument is also the basis for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which is “challenging the constitutionality of the fee on the grounds it is really a tax that needed a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass, but garnered only a bare majority and therefore never became law.”

CalFire Spokesperson Daniel Berland said CalFire fire personnel responded to just under 5,700 fires this year, an increase of more than 1,300 fires from last year. The organization has also seen an $80 million cut from its budget in the past two years, but the new fire prevention fee “has nothing to do with the cuts that were already made … they don’t fill each other’s holes,” Berland explained.

Rather, spending money on fire prevention services will save “millions” of dollars in the long run since fighting fires is far more costly, he said.

Assembly Bill X1 29 “really creates a stable funding source for fire prevention activities which otherwise could easily be put on the chopping block with the amount of reductions that we’ve had to make this last year due to this economy,” he said. “That’s why that money is needed.”

Still, folks like El Matador Drive resident Dave Saylor has a problem with the fee being “levied uniformly, regardless of how much risk my property represents.”

After diligently cutting his own weeds and branches, remodeling the roof with stucco to be fire-resistant and maintaining the landscape in order to prevent wildfires, “I wish I could get some credit for all those things before I’m asked to pay just as much as someone with trees overhanging their shake roof,” he said.

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