The San Diego County Board of Supervisors endorsed two state bills which would repeal the $150 annual “State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee” while opposing a state bill which would replace the tax with a 4.8 percent surcharge on all property insurance policies in California.
The supervisors’ 5-0 vote April 23 directed the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to draft a letter expressing the Board of Supervisors’ support for Assembly Bill 23 and Assembly Bill 124, which would repeal the fire tax, and to draft a letter stating the supervisors’ opposition to Assembly Bill 468, which would substitute the statewide surcharge for the tax.
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 designation of the assessment as a fee exempted it from the public vote on new taxes, although various homeowners and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association are challenging that in court.
“We think this fee is illegal,” said Supervisor Bill Horn.
The tax includes homes and other structures within a State Responsibility Area but also within a local fire protection district or other fire protection public agency, although the tax is reduced to $115 per structure for property within a fire protection agency. Approximately 74,000 properties in San Diego County are within the State Responsibility Area.
No credit is given to property owners in fire protection agencies which have voter-approved benefit fees as well as local property tax revenue. The fee legislation did not include any enhanced California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Service.
“The state is stealing the money,” Horn said.
The assessment affects 56 of California’s 58 counties; Sutter County is mostly irrigated agriculture and has no Cal Fire responsibility area while San Francisco County consists entirely of the City of San Francisco and is covered by its city fire department.
The County of San Diego spends $15.5 million annually on fire protection, including $10.2 million which is paid directly to Cal Fire on a contract basis to keep stations in State Responsibility Areas open year-round and staffed by professional firefighters. “We for years have been picking up the responsibility of the state,” Jacob said.
Since 1993 the county has spent approximately $230 million on measures such as brush clearing, new firefighting vehicles, an emergency radio network, evacuation plans, and two firefighting helicopters. The county’s funding of those programs is derived from property tax revenue, including that from State Responsibility Area parcels.
“This also helps the cities,” Jacob said, noting that the 2003 and 2007 wildfires which started in unincorporated areas spread to incorporated cities.
The county also made the Cal Fire division chief the fire chief of the San Diego County Regional Fire Authority.
The fee was first assessed on 2012-13 property tax bills. Tim Donnelly, whose district office is in Victorville, and Mike Morrell of Rancho Cucamonga authored the bills to repeal the tax outright.
Assembly Bill 468 was authored by Wesley Chesbro, who has district offices in Santa Rosa, Eureka, and Ukiah. “A.B. 468 gets rid of one bad tax and replaces it with another,” Horn said.
“This is no better because it simply swaps one tax for another. The state simply needs to get its fiscal house in order,” Jacob said.