Fire fee law needs revision to make it more equitable

We agree with the philosophy behind the state’s new fire fee: Charge residents of rural, fire-prone areas an annual fee to ensure that prevention efforts — control burns, brush thinning, inspections, etc. — are adequately funded.

That’s only fair. If homeowners choose to live in remote, densely vegetated areas where fire is an ever-present danger, they should pay for the additional services they require, just as residents who live near rivers and creeks often pay fees for levee maintenance and channel clearing.

In practice, though, the annual $150 fire prevention fee — $115 for residents already paying a local district for fire protection — has been imposed so inequitably that we find it impossible to support.

As it turns out, it isn’t just residents of the remote backcountry who are expected to pay; owners of single-family homes, apartments and mobile home parks in communities like Los Osos have been slapped with bills as well.

In some cases, residents on one side of a street are charged, while those on the opposite side are not. What’s more, homeowners living in incorporated cities are automatically exempt, while residents of urbanized — but unincorporated — are not.

Whether or not a homeowner gets a bill depends, not so much on fire danger, but on whether the property happens to be inside something called the state responsibility area.

As we see it, therein lies the problem: the state responsibility area is far too broad a category. Just about any stretch of unincorporated property with a bit of brush, grass or trees seems to qualify for inclusion, regardless of fire hazard.

But that’s not the only reason the fire fee has been so controversial. There also have been complaints that imposition of the fee amounts to “double billing.”

Los Osos resident Leslie Bowker, for example, told us he pays $76.40 annually to the Los Osos Community Services District, which contracts with Cal Fire to provide fire protection. On top of that, he’s now expected to pay $115 to the state.

Officials in Sacramento insist that’s not a duplication of services, because the fire fee pays for prevention work — not fire suppression, which is generally the responsibility of the local fire department.

That may seem like split ting hairs. It’s not; fire prevention and suppression are separate functions, and from a public safety standpoint, both are essential.

But the fire prevention fee, as applied, is not the right tool to raise money — it comes across as a money grab, rather than a legitimate fee for service.

The state Legislature is expected to re-examine fire fees; the governor is asking lawmakers to broaden the allowable uses, while Republicans are seeking to have the law overturned altogether.

Killing the fee is too drastic, but it should be revamped.

An earlier version of the fire fee legislation proposed using fire hazard severity zones to determine who would pay. That’s worth reconsidering.

We agree that the state simply cannot afford to skimp on prevention, not when studies show that every $1 spent on prevention can save as much as $14 on suppression costs.

But the fire fee, as written, is inequitable.

It’s time to revise the law to better ensure that those who truly need fire prevention services are the ones footing the bill.


Here’s how to contact local legislators: Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian 1150 Osos St., Suite No. 207 San Luis Obispo 93401 805-549-3381 http://arc.asm.ca.gov/member /AD35 and State Sen. Bill Monning 605 Santa Rosa St., Suite B San Luis Obispo 93401 805-549-3784 http://http://sd17.senate.ca.gov