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Tuesday, Aug 23 2011 03:15 PM

State fire fees to be assessed in rural areas

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Under a new law approved as part of the state budget, many Tehachapi residents and hundreds of thousands of other California residents living near wildland areas will soon be expected to pay a new state fee.

State Responsibility Area Fees of $150 are to be assessed on wildfire-prone properties statewide, including 40,000 to 45,000 properties in Kern County, said Kern County Fire Department spokesman Sean Collins. Affected areas include properties near Tehachapi, Frazier Park, Kern River Valley and Taft.

In the Greater Tehachapi area, most property outside the Tehachapi city limits would be affected.

The money collected will go to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the state’s fire agency, for fire prevention efforts.

“The state has long looked for a stable funding source for fire protection,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

The department currently receives about 90 percent of its funding from the state’s general fund, Berlant said. When the economy’s bad, the funding goes down.

Under the new law, the department will receive stable funding no matter what economic woes the state faces.

And its possible local fire agencies could also receive some money in the form of local assistance grants, according to the legislation.

The State Board of Equalization will collect fees beginning this fiscal year.

According to the legislation, “The bill would establish the State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Fund and would require the fire prevention fees collected, except that portion retained by the State Board of Equalization, to be deposited into the fund and to be available, upon appropriation by the Legislature, for certain specified fire prevention activities, which would benefit the owners of structures in state responsibility areas who are subject to the fire prevention fee ...”

George Gentry, spokesman for the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the services provided through the fees will directly benefit the homeowners paying them.

“The money would go into a state fire prevention fund and from there be disbursed into various items,” he said.

The board met Monday and was expected to pass emergency regulations in accordance with the bill. The emergency regulations are only good for 180 days, so the board will have to adopt permanent regulations in the coming months.

Residents in affected areas will most likely start receiving notification of the fee in the early part of next year, Gentry said.

Rural residents throughout the county are unhappy about the new fee.

Old West Ranch resident Randy Robey said he feels like people living in rural areas are being singled out for something that everyone should help pay. He said the fee is too high, as would any additional charge be in this economy.

“Who the hell’s got an extra $150?” Robey asked.

Joshua Gordon, of Kernville, said he can afford the fees but knows a lot of people living nearby who can’t. And if residents have to pay a fee, he’d like to see it go toward local agencies rather than the state.

Gordon also said its strange the way the lines are drawn designating who has to pay and who doesn’t. He said he can’t tell if he’s within the zone that will require payment.

“I haven’t been able to pin it down,” he said.

Bodfish Canyon resident Jeffrey D. Godfrey said he can afford the fee.

He lives in an area that sees fires fairly often, and twice a year he removes brush and grass from near his property.

He said he’s never been especially worried during wildfires because of the large swath of defensible space around his home.

Tammy Meadows, who lives nearby, said the fee would be “kind of an unnecessary hardship.”

Lake Isabella resident Anthony Abruzzo said no one likes to pay a new fee. He believes there ought to be another way to support fire prevention efforts.

“It’s the principle, and there are people who live in this area who are in extremes and this will be a hardship for them,” he said.

The $150 fire fee will be imposed on more than 846,000 homes in 31 million rural acres covered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It would raise an estimated $50 million the first year, and ultimately $200 million annually, to prevent and fight fires in the vast area covers about one-third of the state.

The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Counsel ruled that both fees can be imposed without a two-thirds vote under Proposition 26 to directly pay for specific state services, according to state Sen. Mark Leno, who chairs the Senate budget committee. In a statement to the Associated Press in late June, he said it's “only fair” for rural residents to pay for their own protection instead of having the money come from general taxes.

"Fee for service. You get what you pay for," Leno said.

But as the dust as settled on the budget passed by the legislature in late June and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, it’s looking like there is no service coming to rural property owners. In fact, state fire officials said last week that since the new law requires that the fee must go to local fire-prevention efforts, the fire-fighting budget of Cal Fire may be cut by $50 million this year and as much as $200 million per year in the future.

Exactly how that would impact Kern County is unclear. Kern is among six California counties which contract with the state to take care of SRAs.

Whether the state would be required to return fees collected on Kern County property to local jurisdiction – such as Fire Safe Councils – is unclear.

When he signed the bill, Gov. Brown noted that a problem is that it requires the fee revenue to be used for creating defensible space – instead of actually fighting fires. There is talk in Sacramento of making changes in the law.

There is also talk of litigation to overturn the fee.

And Northern California state Sen. Ted Gaines, whose district includes South Lake Tahoe, has kicked off a campaign to place a referendum on next year’s ballot to do just that.

Gaines and other Republicans believe the tax is illegal because Democrats passed it on a simple majority vote, rather than the two-thirds legislative vote needed for tax increases.

"You've also got this issue of double taxation when you've got homeowners paying for fire protection at a local and state level," he told the Associated Press.

The law also might face a legal challenge from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the California Farm Bureau; both organizations are reportedly looking at it closely.

Jason Kotowski of The Bakersfield Californian contributed to this report.

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