Burning questions remain about fire prevention fee

Residents need assurances that money will benefit them

letters@thetribunenews.comAugust 11, 2013 

The state of California has yet to overhaul the controversial and poorly administered fire prevention fee, which is now the subject of a class-action lawsuit.

Attempts to repeal the fee — which is $115 or $150 per year, depending on whether property owners pay for fire protection — have failed. Now, legislators are waiting for results of the court case before they act.

In the meantime, though, another round of bills is on the way to owners of about 30,000 structures in San Luis Obispo County. All the while, the balance in the fire fee fund continues to grow.

By the end of 2013-14, it’s estimated that nearly $90 million in unspent revenue will have accumulated statewide, even though the Legislature has expanded the list of activities that can be funded with prevention fees.

It’s been our position that a reasonable fire prevention fee is warranted. It’s only fair that people who choose to live in remote, heavily vegetated areas should pay for the additional fire prevention services that will help keep them safe.

We believe, however, that the fire prevention fee is being applied inequitably. The very fact that unspent funds are accumulating at such rapid rates indicates that the fee may be set too high and/or too many people are being billed.

As we editorialized in February, there have been many local examples of inequities. Owners of mobile home parks and apartments in urbanized areas have been billed. In some cases, residents of one side of a street are expected to pay, while their neighbors across the street are not.

We’ve been told that, in some instances, the state relied on outdated maps that failed to reflect recent developments . Efforts have been made to correct those errors, but it’s been a slow process.

Beyond that, we have a more fundamental concern that there appears to be no effort to ensure that those who pay will derive full benefit from the fees. The revenue goes into one big pool, and fire prevention officials in the various areas of the state then apply for funding for prevention programs and projects.

In San Luis Obispo County, for example, Cal Fire has received funds to assist the California Conservation Corps with fuel reduction projects; for fire investigations; oversight of the defensible space inspection program, which helps ensure there’s adequate clearance around homes; for education on fire prevention; and for planning, environmental review and oversight of fuel reduction programs.

In addition, Cal Fire anticipates hiring a local forester who will work on prevention programs — one of 50 to 60 such new hires in the state.

This is welcome news, and is certainly needed; as we’ve reported before, studies show that every $1 spent on prevention can save as much as $14 in suppression costs.

But how do we know that SLO County is receiving its fair share?

We believe there must be some geographical nexus between fees and the projects and programs they support. And there must be transparency, so that local residents have assurance that the fees they pay will directly benefit them, rather than residents of the county of San Bernardino or Santa Barbara or El Dorado.

If the fire prevention fee is overturned by the court, these concerns will be moot.

If it survives, we again urge legislators to ensure that 1. those who pay the fee truly need prevention services and 2. they get their full money’s worth.

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