Rural residents of San Luis Obispo County are bracing for the second year of “fire prevention fees,” a $115 charge that a class-action lawsuit alleges is an illegal tax.
The California state Board of Equalization began sending out bills two weeks ago to more than 700,000 Californians who own land in the 31 million-acre “state responsibility area” where the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is responsible for fire protection.
There are roughly 30,000 structures in San Luis Obispo County subject to the fees, according to Cal Fire Chief Rob Lewin.
County leaders have been critical of the fee. Supervisor Bruce Gibson said one of the problems with the fee is that it does not take into account that some unincorporated communities, such as Los Osos, get their fire protection from community services districts.
“The way this was engineered doesn’t seem sensible,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense that some people were paying twice for this.”
The fees range from $115 a year per habitable structure in communities and counties that already receive fire protection from local or county departments, such as Cambria and San Luis Obispo County — to $150 a year per habitable structure in communities that don’t.
Until the lawsuit is resolved, advocates for rural residents are encouraging them to play by the rules, pay the fee, then appeal it.
“We don’t want to get caught up in penalties and interest,” said George Runner, a member of the Board of Equalization whose district covers most of Northern and Central California and includes half of those subject to the fee.
Late bills are subject to a steep penalty of 20 percent per month.
Runner, who opposes the fee and has conducted conference calls about it with 2,400 constituents, noted that many residents who were billed simply didn’t pay the fee last year.
According to the Board of Equalization, 101,000 people — or 13 percent of those billed — still haven’t paid the fee for last year.
Because many residents don’t know where the funds go, Placer County Supervisor Jim Holmes fears they may be reluctant to support their cash-strapped local fire districts, which haven’t actually benefited from the fee.
Many residents are also angry because they said they felt the fee didn’t assist their local fire districts or provide them with any special services.
Janet Upton, a Cal Fire spokeswoman, said the effects of fire prevention efforts are necessarily hard to observe.
“What the fee is not for is fire engines, that sort of thing,” she said. Instead, fire prevention includes a wide variety of activities, Upton said, including power line regulation and civil cost recovery, or suing those responsible for costly wildfires.
She added that while the fee did not fund any new positions last year, it provided a stable source of funding that wouldn’t be cut in a down budget year.
This year, she said, the fee will help Cal Fire increase the number of boots on the ground for fire prevention.
“In this budget year, they added $11 million to our budget for fire severity treatment, education, planning and prevention,” Upton said.
About 70 personnel will be added during the fire season, she said, including foresters for surplus vegetation and defensible-space inspectors to make sure houses are far enough away from fire hazards.
The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.