Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Riverside Press Enterprise: Criticism builds against fire protection fee

State's $90 fire fee OK'd; criticism heats up

The Riverside Press Enterprise 10:54 PM PDT on Monday, August 22, 2011

SACRAMENTO - Tens of thousands of rural property owners in Riverside and San Bernardino counties will have to pay fire prevention fees of up to $90 a year under emergency regulations adopted Monday by the state forestry board.
The approved fee on inhabitable structures in places where the state has the main firefighting responsibility is significantly less than the $150 maximum fee sought by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown in the June budget package.
Various discounts could reduce the fee to almost nothing for some property owners, generating much less than the $50 million assumed in the 2011-12 budget.

Monday's fees, however, could have a heavier impact in places like Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Many of the more than 1 million acres of state responsibility area land in the two counties are identified as having a very high fire threat, and those places pay more under Monday's fee.

The fee will take effect Sept. 1. It could be altered before Monday's emergency regulations expire in 180 days, and possibly as soon as October.

"I don't think anybody expects that this package could be anywhere near perfect," Board of Forestry and Fire Protection Chairman Stan Dixon, of Eureka, said Monday before the panel's unanimous vote. "We are going to find out very quickly, after Sept. 1, what needs to be addressed. We're going to get an earful."

Supporters of the June $150 fee contended that state taxpayers effectively subsidize residents in the state areas. The Legislature's nonpartisan fiscal analyst had linked the areas' rising population to increases in the state's firefighting budget and more medical calls.

Critics, however, call the proposed charge illegal and unfair. Many homeowners in the targeted areas already pay for local fire protection, opponents said. A Republican lawmaker has filed paperwork to overturn the law.
State officials estimate there are as many as 850,000 dwellings in state responsibility areas. An average fee of $30 per structure would mean revenue of $25.5 million in 2011-12.

But in his signing message last month, Brown said he envisioned a $150 fee that would provide $50 million for Cal Fire in 2011-12 and $200 million annually thereafter.

The Brown administration is crafting legislation to modify the fee law before lawmakers recess for the year Sept. 9.

"We will deal with issues related to the fee and a host of other technical issues," Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said Monday, offering few details about the legislation.

Monday's fee, he said, is only "the first step in a number of steps that still have to happen."
Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, said the fee is unworkable and he urged the board to hold off on the regulations.

"You have been handed a lemon and you're trying to make lemonade," Jeffries said.


There are about 100,000 structures on state responsibility land in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, based on census and Cal Fire data.

At least three-quarters of the housing units in Riverside County's state responsibility also are in or near very-high fire severity zones. In San Bernardino County, two-thirds of San Bernardino County structures are in very-high threat areas

Cal Fire, however, lacks detailed parcel-level maps showing fire threat, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said.

In Riverside County, for example, there are almost 40,000 parcels that are completely within a very high fire severity zone in a state responsibility area. There are 5,000 additional parcels that are at least partly within a very high fire severity zone.

"It's going to be a very challenging task to go back and revalidate the numbers, determine those that qualify and generate a list to go" to the state Board of Equalization, which will administer the fee, Pimlott said. "I'm concerned that the regulations as adopted don't meet the intent of the governor's signing message."

Fire fee
Regulations adopted Monday set the following charges and exemptions for an inhabited structure covered by the State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee.
$15 Administration
$10 Inspections
$5 Mapping
$15 Fire prevention program
$20 Dwelling in a very high fire severity zone
$25 Grant program
$10 Living in a county that have certified fire safe regulations or safety element
$45 Already covered by local fire protection program
$10 Home has had defensible space inspection within four years.
Board of forestry and fire protection

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