Rarely do Sacramento politicians, local government officials and consumer advocacy groups agree on anything. But this time, on the issue of the latest fire fee imposed by the California state legislature, all three are in total agreement on at least one point: Pay the fee.
However, that’s where the conciliatory tone ends.
Some state officials – the ones who voted for the fire fee – say pay the fee, it is legal and was imposed as a means to pay for Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency. Legislators in the minority in this case, say it is a move made to punish Republican members who earlier in the current session, did not vote for other tax increases. Locally, fire officials from North County Fire Protection District, say the fee is unjust and has put their agency in the crosshairs of residents in the rural areas of Bonsall, Fallbrook and Rainbow.
Although there is little agreement on the need for the fee, all those involved say paying the fee now, will help homeowners avoid serious trouble down the road.
“Some people in our area think this fee benefits our department, but it doesn’t. This fee is not coming from us,” said Bill Metcalf, fire chief and chief executive officer of North County Fire Protection District (NCFPD). “This fee comes directly from our state legislature, and was signed into law by the governor late last year. We oppose this fee on many points.”
Most notable of Metcalf’s oppositions, is that the fee is based on the number of inhabitable structures on a homeowner’s property.
“What a lot of people don’t know or understand is that Cal Fire’s responsibility ends when it involves structures. Their role is to stop a wildfire from spreading, but it does not include saving homes. So, why is the fee based on structures that they won’t protect? It doesn’t make any sense,” said Metcalf.
According to Metcalf, the fee is supposed to prevent cuts to Cal Fire’s budget. However, even with the implementation of the fee, he says, severe cuts could be made to the agency’s operation for next summer and beyond.
“Within all this discussion about the fee, not one cent is necessarily going to go to the Cal Fire budget, and that’s another point that we oppose,” Metcalf said.
“The way this legislation is written, the state can impose the fee using Cal Fire as the reason, but there are no safeguards to insure that Cal Fire is going to get a dime from the fees that are collected. There could still be significant cuts made to Cal Fire’s budget, and the state can then use the money collected to apply to shortages in other areas of the general fund.”
Metcalf also made a connection of the fire fee to Proposition 30.
“We’ve been hearing from state officials that if Prop. 30 doesn’t pass, that there will be some severe cuts made to Cal Fire’s budget; they’re calling them “trigger cuts” and they could be devastating to their operation beginning almost immediately,” he said.
“So even with this fire fee, there’s no telling if Cal Fire is going to experience severe cuts in the very near future – the legislature can use the money they collect from this fee, any way they choose.”
There is further confusion on the exact amount of the fire fee for homeowners within the NCFPD area of responsibility. Recent mailings indicating the imposition of the fire fee, note that each inhabitable structure will cost the property owner $150. However, the fee is actually $115 – a discount of $35 – because those properties within the NCFPD are already assessed a fee which is collected from the semi-annual property taxes paid to the county.
“Residents within our area have come here to our offices and they’re mad about this fire fee,” said Metcalf. “We have done our best to explain to them that we never asked for this fee, and that we won’t see one dime of it coming into our district. We have been very good about making our existing budget work – we’ve made some tough choices and we’ve been able to still provide outstanding service to the residents in our area,” he said.
Metcalf said that if Prop. 30 passes, there have been promises made by the legislature to spare some of the state’s most important agencies from further cuts. Presumably, those include cuts to education and to Cal Fire, but as Metcalf says, there are no guarantees.
“The state can do whatever it wants,” he said. “Even with all the money they collect from this fire fee, and if Prop. 30 passes, the state can still take money from anywhere, and apply it to the general fund. There are no safeguards in place to keep the money where it was originally intended.”
Metcalf recently co-authored, along with NCFPD board president Wayne Hooper, a letter that was published voicing their protest to the fire fee. In the letter, they note: “The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has filed legal action to overturn the fee. The most important point is that the lawsuit does not seek injunctive relief. In other words, it does not ask the court to halt collection of the fee while the lawsuit proceeds. So bills need to be paid when received or you will incur interest and penalties.”
Some of those penalties could include a tax lien on the property, as noted in a statement from the Howard-Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
That group also encourages property owners to pay the bill, but to do so under protest.
“You must pay your bill. Pay close attention to the due date. You may have fewer than 30 days to pay. If you are late, steep penalties and interest are compounded monthly. Moreover, the fee is a lien on your property, and failure to pay can result in foreclosure,” the statement says.
“We at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association believe this fee is really an illegal tax under Proposition 13. We plan to challenge the constitutionality of this tax in court. Should we prevail, the court may order refunds. To qualify for a refund you must have paid your bill and filed a “Petition for Redetermination” with the responsible agencies. When you pay your fee, we recommend that you write ‘under protest’ on the notation line of your check.”
Kevin Jefferies, Assemblyman for the 66th District also encourages property owners pay the fee.
In a statement, Jefferies said, “This tax was not requested by Cal Fire. It was not even supported by any major players in the fire service – in fact most outright opposed it. The tax does not fund a single firefighter, fire engine, helicopter, air tanker, etc. It can only be used for fire prevention and education programs. Behind the scenes it’s simply a shell game with the state budget and our tax dollars.
“It is very important that when someone gets the bill – they pay it. You cannot get away with protesting and not paying. The California Board of Equalization (BOE) is collecting the tax and they are just like the IRS. Pay it or be fined (and then pay it anyways). If someone wants to protest – it is best to pay and protest at the same time.”
Of the nearly 100 square miles of responsibility for the NCFPD, property owners in all but the four-square mile area in downtown are required to pay the fire fee.
For more information about the fee, visit firetaxprotest.org or firepreventionfee.org.