A bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown designed to generate revenue for the state could cost some Plumas County homeowners an extra $150 per year.
Despite objections by lawmakers in rural counties, Brown signed Assembly Bill 29 as part of the state budget deal June 30.
Referred to as the “rural fire tax,” it will impose up to a $150 fire-prevention fee on state residents who live in a state responsibility area (SRA).
State responsibility areas are those covered by CalFire. There are 434,000 acres of SRA land in Plumas County.
The fee would be assessed on habitable structures within the SRA and show up as a line item on the owners’ property tax statement.
While CalFire does not maintain a firefighting presence in Plumas County, it does contract with the U.S. Forest Service to provide the necessary coverage.
CalFire will use state resources to fight fires on Forest Service land when needed.
Plumas County Supervisor Terry Swofford called the new fee “crazy” when it was discussed during the board’s Tuesday, July 12, meeting.
“Since CalFire and the Forest Service do not protect structures, I don’t see how they can charge per structure when they only do wildland protection,” Swofford said.
“People are under the misconception that if you are in a fire district you won’t have to pay this fee. But that’s not necessarily true.”
Many county residents who live in a state responsibility area already pay for fire protection through a local fire district.
Some of those residents could end up paying the additional $150 fee for services they are already receiving.
CalFire Public Information Officer Daniel Berlant said he has been fielding a lot of questions and concerns about AB 29 in his Sacramento office.
Berlant said the governor is aware the bill has many issues that still need to be addressed. He added that CalFire plans to work with local fire departments to remedy the problems.
“There are still lots of details that need to be worked out (concerning the legislation),” Berlant said. “We will be looking at the double-taxation issue. That is one of the complexities that has to be addressed.”
State Assemblyman Dan Logue said AB 29 probably isn’t legal.
“The way we are going to have to fix this is in court,” Logue said. “The governor said he has signed it. And he’s going to try to implement it. But half of his budget is not even legal.
“Prop 26 requires two-thirds majority vote in order to pass or increase a fee. They (the Legislature) did this without a two-thirds vote. So it is going to go to court.”
Quincy Fire District Commissioner Chuck Leonhardt said the Regional Council of Rural Counties opposed AB 29.
“AB 29 places the relationship between local communities and their fire districts at risk by adding an additional financial burden on homeowners in difficult economic times,” Leonhardt said.
Leonhardt emphasized that local fire districts rely on community support more than ever. He encouraged residents to contact their local fire departments if they have questions.
Brown’s letter about AB 29
In a July 7 letter to the State Assembly, Brown wrote, “I am signing Assembly Bill 29 because establishing a fire protection and prevention fee in state responsibility areas will reduce General Fund costs, and ensure property owners in developed wildland areas pay for a portion of the fire and emergency response services they receive.”
Brown rationalized that, because of population growth, the state’s costs associated with fire protection in state wildland areas has increased significantly.
He said the landowners in those areas should fund fire prevention and protection services.
Brown’s letter to the State Assembly continued, “The purpose of this bill is to make the necessary statutory changes to realize $50 million of General Fund savings identified in the budget bill by allocating the revenue generated from this fee to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (CalFire) fire protection program, as well as $200 million in ongoing General Fund savings.”
Statewide, the new fee is expected to affect about 860,000 homes located in 31 million acres of state responsibility area.
AB 29 fees are for fire prevention
According to language written into AB 29, the money collected is to be used for fire prevention activities, which will benefit owners of structures in state responsibility areas.
Some of the activities detailed in the bill include:
—Grants to fire safe councils, the California Conservation Corps or certified local conservation corps for fire prevention projects.
—Inspections by CalFire for compliance with defensible space requirements around structures.
—Public education to reduce fire risk.
—Fire severity and fire hazard mapping.
—Other fire prevention projects.
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