Fire fee should be overhauled

Call for repeal is unlikely to gain much traction, but the fee may be too high, and the money collected should stay local

letters@thetribunenews.comOctober 17, 2013 

Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian hasn’t given up the fight against the controversial fire prevention fee. In a large-scale mass mailing that reached local households over the weekend, he’s calling for repeal of what he considers a “likely illegal” tax.

We support Achadjian’s efforts to keep this topic in the public eye.

He also deserves credit for paying attention to his constituents, many of whom are unhappy about the fee. According to Achadjian’s staff, this single issue has generated more comments from constituents than any other.

We continue to believe, however, that the fee should be revamped, rather than tossed out altogether.

It’s only fair that residents who choose to live in rural, fire-prone areas pay a fee to help defray additional fire prevention services that will better ensure their safety.

As a practical matter, we also believe that a complete repeal of the fee will get little traction in a state Legislature controlled by Democrats; indeed, previous attempts to repeal the law have failed.

We share Achadjian’s concern, though, that fire prevention fees are accruing at an astonishingly rapid rate: a $90 million surplus is expected by the end of the year. That indicates to us that the fee was set too high and/or too many people are being assessed. (In San Luis Obispo County alone, owners of 30,000 properties have been billed.)

We also don’t like the fact that all fees go into one statewide pool — we would prefer to see the revenue generated in our region stay in our region.

Plus, there have been some glaring inequities in billing. In some cases, residents of urban communities who already are paying for fire protection are still assessed a fee, albeit a slightly reduced one. They pay $115 per year, rather than $150.

Achadjian’s staff said the assemblyman will support any renewed effort to overturn the fee in the Legislature. There’s also a possibility that the fee could be overturned by a court ruling because a class-action lawsuit is challenging the legality of the fee. Should the fee survive the court challenge, we strongly urge Achadjian and other lawmakers to focus on making it more equitable, rather than trying to repeal it. Given the uncertainty of the state budget, it’s imperative to ensure funding for essential services, fire prevention being one of them. If a reasonable fire prevention fee is the best way to ensure prevention efforts are adequately funded, that’s a small price to pay.

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