Here’s why it’s time to bring back California’s hated fire fee

There was a lot to dislike about California’s now-defunct fire prevention fee.

The annual fee of $152 — $117 in areas already served by a fire department — was applied mostly on rural residences in fire-prone areas.

It was vilified by Republican lawmakers, who claimed it was an illegal tax.

Property owners complained it was applied unfairly. For example, in some cases residents on one side of the street were assessed while their across-the-street neighbors were not.

There were concerns that it could be used only for prevention activities — not for actual “boots on the ground” — and that it went into a statewide pool, rather than being spent in the areas where it was collected.

And there was outrage when it was revealed that the state had been sitting on millions of dollars in surplus funds.

The unpopular fee — passed in 2011 — was suspended in 2017.

In hindsight, that was shortsighted.

Given what California is now up against, it’s time to consider reviving some version of a fire fee for rural communities at risk of being destroyed by fire.

Here’s why:

  • First and foremost, effective fire prevention can save lives and property.
  • Firefighting is eating up a growing chunk of the state’s budget. According to CalMatters, suppression and emergency response cost the state nearly $1 billion last year — twice what the state had budgeted. Fire prevention should reduce those costs.
  • Rural areas are woefully underfunded. As reported in the Sacramento Bee, state lawmakers allocated $918 million to fire prevention after last year’s Camp Fire, but little of that money went to rural fire departments. While several communities have tried to pass local taxes, only about half of those attempts have been successful.
  • As much as we would like to stick PG&E with the entire bill for fire prevention in its service areas, that would almost certainly mean ratepayers would have to bear an even bigger burden than they do already.
  • It’s a matter of equity. People who choose to live in areas of high fire danger should be willing to pay a reasonable fee to reduce the risk. Considering the lives and property lost in California wildfires over the past two years, $152 is a small price to pay.

If the lessons of the past two years have taught us nothing else, it’s that California needs to step up fire prevention efforts, and that will require multiple sources of funding.

As originally executed, the fire fee program left much to be desired.

In some cases, it was arbitrarily applied to property that was not in a high-risk zone.

Funds collected in an area should have remained in that area.

And there should have been more local control and buy-in over how the money was spent.

But the basic principle was sound: Collect fees on residents of rural, high-risk areas that are prone to destructive wildfires to keep those areas safer.

The need is greater today than ever.

California must double down on fire-prevention work — including research into new technologies and retrofit programs to make buildings safer — that’s beyond the capabilities of individual homeowners and cash-strapped local fire departments.

There will be push-back to any additional fees, but California can no longer afford to simply react to future disasters coming our way due to climate change — firestorms, sea level rise, drought.

We must prepare, and that will require an enormous financial commitment. A fire prevention fee is a place to start.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune