More than 15,000 Humboldt County residents received a $150 state fire fee in the mail last week, catching some off guard and resulting in numerous calls to local fire departments.
The State Responsibility Area fire prevention fee is made payable to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. The controversial fee - some state organizations are calling it a tax - is based on how many "habitable structures" are on a property, at a rate of $150 per structure. Residents that already pay a tax to a local fire department receive a $35 discount.
The bill covers fiscal year 2011-2012. In March 2013, bills will start going out for the 2012-2013 fiscal year raising concerns that rural residents could be charged twice in less than one year.
A projected $84.4 million raised from the fee will go toward fire prevention like brush clearance, but not fire suppression, according to the Cal Fire fee website. The fee is being implemented alphabetically by county across the state. Alameda County residents received the first fees in early August.
In a letter from Gov. Jerry Brown to the state Assembly, he wrote that there has "been a significant increase in state costs associated with fire protection in state wildland areas." The fee is supposed to create $50 million of California General Fund savings per year.
Orick resident Ron Barlow said the $150 bill will discourage local residents from giving money to their local volunteer fire department - the agencies responsible for responding to fires most of the year. He said wildland fires aren't as much of a concern in Orick and other rain-saturated areas of the North Coast.
"It didn't quit raining here until the Fourth of July," Barlow said.
Arcata Fire Department Chief John McFarland said the department receives up to five calls a day from people asking about the fee. The department posted information on its website, www. arcatafire.org, for frequently asked questions and resources to contact, despite not receiving any funding from the fee.
"People do understand it's not a local fire department issue at all," McFarland said.
He said part of the problem is the limited answers being offered by Cal Fire.
"The Cal Fire employees aren't allowed to deviate from their script," McFarland said. "People have been frustrated with that."
The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors voiced disapproval with the fee before it was signed by Brown last year. County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes, writing on behalf of the board, sent a letter to Brown requesting that he veto the bill.
"Although the state's goal to have sufficient funding for services is an admirable goal, this bill will negatively impact fire districts' ability to form and increase revenue to provide an essential service within a local community," the letter stated.
Earlier this month, voters in Fruitland Ridge and Palo Verde rejected the formation of fire protection districts supported by a special tax.
SRA lines drawn
A satellite map on the Cal Fire fee website -- www.firepreventionfee.org -- shows approximately which parts of the county have to pay, and which don't.
In McKinleyville, according to the map, homes on the east side of Main Street must pay the fee, while those on the west are exempt. A similar line is drawn along Old Arcata Road, with residents to the east of the road paying the fee.
"I know a lady in McKinleyville, and her neighbor across the street doesn't get the bill," Arcata Fire Department Chief John McFarland said. "That's hard for people to grasp."
In a letter to the editor, Blue Lake resident Arthur Jones said he and his wife were "shocked" when they got the fee in the mail.
"It's amazing, inasmuch as we've been paying over $50 each year for the last 38 years in support of the Blue Lake Volunteer Fire Department, whose hydrant is less than 1,000 feet from our house," Jones wrote. "It's amazing that those who composed this legislation chose to include all property outside of a city boundary, even though we pay in support of our fire district."
McFarland said about two-thirds of the Arcata fire district falls in a State Responsibility Area.
PROTESTING THE FIRE PREVENTION FEE: Protests can be lodged to Cal Fire online at www.firepreventionfee.org, or property owners can print a form from the website and mail it in.
Property owners can ask for "redetermination" if they can prove that their property is not in the State Responsibility Area. They can also argue that they are entitled to the $35 discount because they pay a local fire district tax.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has launched a new website, www.hjta.org, about the fee.
According to a letter to the editor from Clifford Chapman Sr., executive director of the Humboldt Taxpayer's League, Howard Jarvis is preparing to challenge the tax constitutionally in court on grounds that it's a tax, and should have been subject to a two-thirds vote requirement in the California legislature.
A list of frequently asked questions about the fee is available online at www.boe.ca.gov/ sptaxprog/fire_prev_fee_faq.htm.