Gaines, regional officials continue CA fire fee fight
TAHOE/TRUCKEE – State Sen. Ted Gaines is burning on the State Responsibility Area fire fee, and he is not about to be quelled.The Republican lawmaker who resides in Roseville and represents Nevada County and Truckee and much of Placer County has been fighting the SRA fee since Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Assembly bill in July 2011.Last week, Gaines introduced three separate pieces of legislation intended to overturn the fire fee or exempt property owners who reside within the boundaries of a fire protection district or are low income.”This $150 fire tax is illegal and unfair – plain and simple,” said Gaines. “My goal with these bills is to offer some hope and support to Californians who are still facing a 10 percent unemployment rate and struggling just to make ends meet.”Gaines and other California Republicans representing rural areas have long maintained the fee is actually an illegal tax that should have required a two-thirds vote of the California Legislature rather than a simple majority vote it received in 2011.The fee is anticipated to generate $90 million in the coming fiscal year, which is to be used toward fire prevention services – such as forest thinning and fuels removal – in the specific areas where the fee is being assessed.It would impact some 800,000 property owners and 31 million acres across the state. While the fee per habitable structure is $150, areas served by local agencies such as the North Tahoe Fire Protection District will receive a $35 discount. Property owners within the town of Truckee will not be accessed fire fees, as residents are not inside a designated SRA, unlike various other locations throughout Nevada, Placer and El Dorado counties.According to previous reports, Tahoe/Truckee leaders have argued the fee is not only applied unfairly to rural residents – pointing out it is just as difficult to fight a wildfire barreling toward a small town like Tahoe City as it is to battle a blaze heading toward San Diego – but it unjustly impacts the ability of local fire districts to raise money.In a June 2012 letter to the Sierra Sun, then-NTFPD chief Peter Poe and Meeks Bay Fire Protection District Chief John Pang called the fee “bad public policy” that “will not contribute to increased public safety.””The state is abdicating its responsibility while at the same time extracting revenues from the same property owners we serve,” the chiefs wrote. “This action jeopardizes our ability to ask local voters to support new revenues for increased levels of service.”The measure was deemed to be a fee because the feepayer will receive specific and direct benefits within the State Responsibility Area, said Lia Moore, a fiscal analyst with the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.In the recent 2013-14 budget proposal unveiled by Brown, a proposal to hire 10 personnel for Cal Fire’s Civil Cost-Recovery Program using money derived from the SRA Fee was deemed unconstitutional.”We asked the Office of Legislative Counsel to issue a verbal opinion, and they said (the proposal) did not meet the legal definition of what the fee could be used for,” Moore said.The attempt to fund the cost recovery program – which attempts to recoup funds from individuals who started fires purposely or through gross negligence – drew the ire of 24 California Republican lawmakers who sent a terse letter to Gov. Brown on Feb. 1.”This will take away $1.7 million from fire prevention purposes, ” the letter states. “While we still believe this tax is illegal, at a minimum the money should be used for its stated purpose – preventing wildfires.”Gaines and other Republicans have also expressed outrage over reports that Cal Fire stashed away about $3.6 million in taxpayer dollars rather than depositing the money into the state general fund, as required.”My legislation comes at a time when Cal Fire has been accused of stashing away millions in a secret fund,” Gaines said. “I hope my legislative colleagues realize that charging rural Californians a $150 illegal fire fee specifically to support Cal Fire operations at the same time they are hiding millions provides enough justification to support these bills.”Last Tuesday, Brown downplayed the report, dismissing it as “a boring story.”A recent letter crafted by Nevada County Supervisor Hank Weston chastised the state for its lack of accountability and a suspicion the money would not be used for its professed purposes but “merely to prop up Cal Fire’s budget.”The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in conjunction with numerous plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court in early October, claiming the fee is an illegal tax. Later, El Dorado County joined the class-action lawsuit.Supervisor Nate Beason said if Cal Fire is successful in the lawsuit, it’s a possibility that the state would “increase the fee and broaden the application.”- The Sierra Sun contribted to this report.