Fire prevention fee collection on hold

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CalFire volunteer Jimmy Holguin, from Hollister, uses a drip torch to start a control burn on private property. File photo

Calfire officials requested to postpone fire prevention fee billing for 2012-13, according to a press release from the California State Board of Equalization. The fire prevention fee is charged to residents of rural areas that are serviced by Calfire employees, including some residents in San Benito County.

Jerome E. Horton, the chairman of the board of equalization, was informed that the delay in the collection of these fees is a result of workload issues created by a high number of appeals and he said hoped the postponement would give Calfire officials more time to assure more accurate billing information.

The fire prevention fee funds are administered by Calfire. Current state law requires the BOE to bill the owners of habitable structures located within the State Responsibility Area and collect the fees.

On March12, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit against Calfire and the Board of Equalization (BOE), challenging the constitutionality of the measure.

In a statement released Wednesday, Horton said, “Until the courts decide the constitutionality of this legislation, it remains the law and the board has no alternative but to follow the law which gives Calfire the authority to direct the board to delay the collection of the fee. Time will determine whether these funds were necessary to help prevent and manage fires in certain areas, and whether the law is constitutional. If the law is found to be unconstitutional, we will not permit these fees to further burden feepayers.”

The annual fee was originally approved in 2011 by the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, without a need for voter approval. At the time it was proposed, property owners living in a fire district were expected to receive a $35 discount on the fee bringing it to $115 for about 90 percent of residents in a state responsibility area. But those residents outside a fire district received bills for $150. The proposed fee is anticipated to generate an estimated $84 million annually to fund a variety of fire prevention services for SRAs, including brush clearance around communities on public lands, roadways and evacuation routes. The fee will also fund activities that improve forest health, fire break construction, defensible space inspections, fire prevention engineering, emergency evacuation planning, fire prevention education, fire hazard severity mapping and fire-related law enforcement.

An estimated 800,000 structures in rural areas, including homes and office buildings, are subject to the fee.

When the first bill came out in November 2012, Mindy Sotelo, the manager of the San Benito County Farm Bureau, said her office began receiving calls from local residents in the rural areas of the county inquiring about how they could protest the rural fire prevention fee.

The BOE is working closely with Calfire to determine next steps. For more information on the fee or for updates on its collection, visit http://www.test.boe.ca.gov/taxprograms/fire_prevention_fee_resource.htm

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