Board reduces new rural fire fee

By Karen Brainard

A rural fire fee, recently signed in to California law, was reduced from a maximum of $150 to $90 annually by the state’s fire board on Aug. 22.

The California Forestry and Fire Protection Board also approved changes in the fee structure that could possibly bring the cost down to as little as $5 for some Ramonans.

These revisions, however, are not necessarily a done deal as lawmakers are planning to amend the bill, said Daniel Berlant, a spokesperson for Cal Fire. No date has been set as to when the fees would be assessed, he said.

The law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on July 7, states that property owners in California’s wildland areas, known as State Responsibility Areas (SRAs,) would pay up to $150 per habitable structure on their land. It also required the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection to adopt emergency regulations to establish the fee before Sept. 1.

During last Monday’s meeting, the state board agreed to cap the fee at $90 per home and reduced the fee for additional dwelling units on the same parcel, said Berlant.

Berlant said a number of exemptions also passed by the board, such as $10 off if a homeowner has a Cal Fire Defensible Space inspection and is in compliance and a $10 reduction if a county has board certified fire safe regulations or a safety element in its General Plan, which he said San Diego County has.

For homes in an SRA that also fall within a fire department’s boundaries, a $45 exemption would be allowed if that fire department has a fire prevention program, said Berlant. Also, the $90 maximum fee is for homes listed in very high fire severity zones in SRAs. Homes listed in moderate or high fire severity zones would be subject to a maximum of $70 per dwelling, said Berlant.

While areas to the north, east and south of Ramona are designated as very high zones, Berlant noted that a good portion of land to the west are listed as moderate or high fire severity zones, and would be charged a maximum of $70.

So, if a home in Ramona is in a zone that is subject to the $70 fee and is within the Ramona Municipal Water District’s Fire Department boundaries, the owner would receive a $45 exemption, bringing the fee down to $25. Subtract another $20 for the county exemption and if the homeowner passes a defensible space inspection, and the fee comes down to $5.

That helps the homeowner but not the state budget.

Berlant said the governor’s intent was to generate $50 million this fiscal year for Cal Fire to offset cuts to its budget.

“They may now fall short of that,” he said.  “The governor and legislature still want to move forward with amending the law itself.”

Amendments to the law could also change how the money is to be used, Berlant added.

As it reads now, the money can only be used for fire prevention, even though Gov. Brown said in his signing message that establishing a “fire protection and prevention fee in state responsibility areas will reduce General Fund costs and ensure property owners in developed wildand areas pay for a portion of the fire and emergency response services they receive.”

The bill, ABX1 29, that established the fire fee, was passed in the legislature by a simple majority vote in June as part of the 2011-12 budget deal. State Senator Joel Anderson and State Assemblyman Brian Jones, both who represent Ramona in their districts, as well as the San Diego County Board of Supervisors have openly opposed the fire fee.

The fee would affect about 72,600 homes in San Diego County, said Berlant.

Jones testified before the State Board of Equalization, Aug. 23, questioning the legality of what he called a fire tax. Proposition 26, passed by California voters last year, prohibits the legislature from using loopholes to raise taxes by disguising them as fees and therefore circumventing the Constitutional requirements for passing higher taxes, Jones said in a news release.

“This is nothing more than political sleight of hand and clearly does not pass Constitutional or ethical muster,” said Jones.

   
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