North County Fire Protection District (NCFPD) fire chief Steve Abbott was a speaker at the Fire Districts Association of California conference in Monterey last month.
Abbott presented a white paper on the State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee which assesses the owner of each property with habitable structures and in a firefighting state responsibility area $150 annually. The white paper “Rekindle: A Mutual Aid Request to Extinguish the State Fire Tax, Again” notes that fire agencies themselves are receiving little benefit from the tax.
“The whole goal of the presentation was to give the districts the direction that they needed to provide information to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association to support their claim that it’s an unfair tax,” Abbott said. “I think the mission was accomplished.”
In 2011 the California state legislature made property with habitable structures and in a firefighting state responsibility area subject to the “State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee”. The legislature and Governor Brown left implementation of the $150 annual fee to the Board of Forestry.
The assessment affects 56 of California’s 58 counties; Sutter County is mostly irrigated agriculture and has no California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responsibility area while San Francisco County consists entirely of the City of San Francisco and is covered by its city fire department.
Cal Fire’s primary responsibility is wildland fire prevention and suppression, which the state legislature noted in its decision to include areas within local fire districts since local fire agencies focus on life and property protection. If a local agency is providing fire protection the fee is reduced by $35 to $115 annually.
“We’re not getting anything, literally anything, in return,” Abbott said. “That’s been the case since the fee was enacted in 2011.”
The NCFPD totals approximately 92 square miles, and approximately 88 square miles of that is within a state responsibility area. NCFPD property owners are taxed more than $1 million each year for the state fire fee.
Approximately 150 Fire Districts Association of California members were in the audience when Abbott gave his presentation.
“It was very well received,” said Abbott. “I didn’t know how it was going to go because there are many districts that are served by Cal Fire.”
The consensus of the areas served by Cal Fire was supportive of Abbott’s arguments.
“They weren’t receiving any benefit either,” said Abbott.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is challenging the constitutionality of the assessment, which was enacted without voter approval on the grounds that those paying what was declared to be a fee rather than a tax do not receive a special benefit or direct service.