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Coalition seeks to have CalFire fees returned to the county

Debra Moore

  The Plumas County Fire Safe Council and the county’s fire chiefs want the $1.2 million that county residents paid in CalFire fees last year returned to the county for fire prevention work.

  While there are efforts under way to repeal the fee, including a lawsuit filed March 12 by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, many fear that the fee, in some form, will remain.

  If that’s to be the case then members of the fire safe council want the money returned to the county since CalFire maintains a very limited presence in Plumas County.

  The council plans to ask the county supervisors during their April 9 meeting to adopt a resolution in support of the concept.

  They expect to find support because the supervisors already sent a letter to the state back in October 2012 asking for an exemption from the fee, or, short of that, demanding that the money be returned.

  The $150 fee, which is levied on property owners who live in state responsibility areas for fire protection, is designed for fire prevention activities, not suppression.

  Education and hazardous fuel reductions are two activities that fit the criteria — activities that the fire safe council maintains local jurisdictions would be able to perform better than CalFire.

  During the March 14 meeting of the fire safe council, Jerry Sipe, the county’s office of emergency services director, said, “It’s hard to see how $1.2 million was spent here in Plumas County on fire prevention activities.”

  Sipe, who is also a board member for the fire safe council, is coordinating the effort to take a resolution to the Board of Supervisors.

  Mike Callahan, the secretary/treasurer of the organization, broached the concept of forming a coalition to seek a return of the fees to the county at the council’s January meeting and has been spearheading the project ever since.

  He first received support from the council, then the Special Districts Association and, most recently, the Plumas County Fire Chiefs Association.

  During the Feb. 20 meeting of special districts, Callahan said, “Recovery of these fees shouldn’t discontinue the opposition to the fees; it just says that we’ll take them back.”

  However, few are optimistic that the fee will go away. If the lawsuit is successful and the fee in its present state is overturned, many fear that the state Legislature will simply pass a tax measure.

  “Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing legislation that would redefine the fire fee as a tax,” said retired state Sen. George Runner in a statement last week.

  Runner maintains a website dedicated to opposing the CalFire fee — calfirefee.com.

  The tax would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to pass.

  John Sheehan, who attended the fire safe council meeting last week, said the group should “focus more on the lack of service” for this area, than whether the fee is legal or not.

  If the money were returned to the county, details of how it would be distributed still need to be defined.

  Sipe said he envisioned the money coming in the form of a block grant to the county. “How it will be distributed is still to be determined,” he said.

Next round of fees on the way

  While the fire safe council is working on reclaiming the $1.2 million paid by property owners in 2012, this year’s bills will be arriving soon.

  According to a schedule released by the state Board of Equalization, bills will be sent out by county in alphabetical order beginning with Alameda, Alpine and Amador counties April 2. Butte County notices will be sent April 3 – 5.

  The schedule continues through Orange County on May 16 – 17, but the schedule stopped just short of Plumas County. Its mailing date will be announced soon.

Who pays the fee?

  According to CalFire there are 10,991 fee payers, those deemed to live in a state responsibility area, in Plumas County. Even property owners that live within the jurisdiction of a fire district can be subject to the fee.

  To determine if a property is located in a state responsibility area, go to firepreventionfee.org and open SRA lookup. Follow the directions and view the property on a corresponding map.

Buying or selling property?

  Whether a property is in a state responsibility area or is protected by a fire district is important for a prospective owner to know.

  About 22 percent of private acreage in the county is outside of a fire district and about 5 percent of county residents live outside of a fire district.

  An effort is under way to notify all property owners that do not reside in a fire protection district so that they can talk to local fire chiefs about annexation.

  To ensure that prospective homebuyers are aware of the fire protection status of a property, county Fire Prevention Specialist Sue McCourt is working with local Realtors so that they can assist their clients.

  It is a property owner’s responsibility to disclose all information that he or she knows about the property. McCourt hopes that by making Realtors aware of the situation, they can assist their clients.

  Sue Christensen, the interim association executive of the Plumas County Association of Realtors, said, “Realtors understand their responsibility to disclose any material facts that they know about a property when they’re involved in the transaction.”

  Christen said that Realtors are well-educated as to what state law requires regarding disclosure and that they take seriously their commitment to maintain high professional standards.

  “Part of that duty is to educate their clients on the seller’s responsibility to disclose information about a property being sold,” she said.

  But not all property sales involve a Realtor and it’s important for individuals who are selling property on their own to be aware of their property’s status and make a full disclosure.


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