Contentious rural fire tax strips Cal Fire of money, says Berlant

By Karen Brainard

A new California law that will impose a $150 annual fire fee for many residents living in rural areas of the state, would impact the majority of property owners served by the Intermountain Fire and Rescue Department, said an Intermountain board member.

The fee will be the focus of a special session for the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection on Aug. 22.

A spokesman for Cal Fire said the law would strip money from fire protection and use the fees for fire prevention. Some homeowners in fire protection districts could pay overlapping fire fees and there are questions surrounding the $150 fee per “habitable” structure on properties.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed ABX1 29 into law on July 7. The law targets homeowners who live in wildland areas known as state responsibility areas (SRA), protected by Cal Fire.

According to Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant, there are homeowners within the boundaries of the Ramona Municipal Water District’s Fire Department who could pay overlapping fees because they are also in an SRA. No details on such affected areas were available.

Ron Peterka, an 18-year-board member of the Intermountain Fire Department, said the new bill would affect almost all of the property owners in the 125 square miles served by the department, which includes portions of the east end of Ramona to Santa Ysabel.

The way the bill was written, Peterka said, a homeowner with more than one habitable dwelling on his property would be charged $150 per dwelling. That could include a cabin or trailer.

The law also states that the estimated $200 million raised from the fee would go solely toward fire prevention, he said.

“The consensus is this is crazy,” said Peterka. “I’m not against the fee if the fee was for fire protection.”

Intermountain is a volunteer fire department that receives funding from the county and from donations, he said.

Intermountain Fire and Rescue Department has not taken a stand on the fee, said Peterka.

The law was intended to raise $200 million annually and $50 million from the remainder of this year for fire prevention, said Berlant.

But, he said, there is a swap. Cal Fire’s funds come from the state’s general budget so the amount taken in from the fire fees would be substracted from Cal Fire’s budget.

The fire fee bills will be issued by the state Board of Equalization. Once the bills are sent, Peterka said property owners will have 30 days to pay and, if late, will be penalized at 20 percent per month.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors opposes the fee

   
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