By Joe Naiman
At California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection’s first of two public meetings on the state’s new fire tax, held May 16, San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob requested that the county be exempted.
“This tax in my opinion is nothing more than a way for the state to backfill the cuts to Cal Fire,” Jacob said.
The meeting was held in the County Administration Center in San Diego. Speakers told Board of Forestry Executive Officer George Gentry and board member Bruce Saito that San Diego County agencies already have taxes to cover fire prevention, that the county works closely with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), and that local fire prevention programs such as fire safe councils and community emergency response teams address what the tax would cover.
In 2011 the California Legislature approved a bill to make property owners with habitable structures in state responsibility areas subject to the “State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee.” The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown left implementation of the $150 annual fee to the Board of Forestry.
“We want to find a fair and equitable way to do that,” Gentry said.
The fire fee’s proposed regulations, which will incorporate public comments, are expected to be circulated for public review in June. The public will be allowed to write comments in response.
Ramona resident Steve Butler, who spent 36 years working for Cal Fire, noted that Cal Fire’s activities include fire prevention.
“They’re already budgeted for that,” he said. “These inspectors can give guidance and information to the homeowners if they have issues.”
Environmental issues have limited brush clearance distances, but Butler noted that Cal Fire can expand the 100-foot clearance if fire issues warrant.
Butler added that newer homes in state responsibility areas are subject to building codes that include fire-resistant features, and that most homes burn from embers or trash cans with flammable material too close to the house and not due to direct flame impingement.
“We have all the fire prevention measures,” Butler said. “The $150 would be better spent by the homeowner doing his own fire prevention measures.”
The fire fee affects 56 of California’s 58 counties; Sutter County is mostly irrigated agriculture and has no Cal Fire responsibility area while San Francisco County consists entirely of the City of San Francisco. Amador County Supervisor Richard Forster was among the speakers seeking exemptions from the benefit assessment.
Jacob acknowledged that the Board of Forestry was required by the state Legislature to impose the tax but explained why San Diego County should be exempted.
“Our county has a distinctive integrated fire protection system in the state responsibility areas,” she said. “Our county has worked hand-in-hand with Cal Fire to dramatically upgrade this network.”
The County of San Diego spends $15.5 million annually on fire protection, including $10.2 million which is paid directly to Cal Fire on a contract basis to keep stations in state responsibility areas open year-round and staffed by professional firefighters.
Since 1993 the county has spent approximately $230 million on measures such as brush clearing, new firefighting vehicles, an emergency radio network, evacuation plans, and two firefighting helicopters.
The county also appointed Cal Fire division chief Howard Windsor the fire chief of the San Diego County Regional Fire Authority.
“Unlike the Legislature, San Diego County has not turned its back to Cal Fire,” Jacob said.
The county’s funding of those programs is derived from property tax revenue, including that from state responsibility area parcels. Many districts have additional voter-approved assessments.
“Now they’re being asked to pay a triple tax. That would be a huge injustice,” Jacob said.
Approximately 74,000 properties in San Diego County are within the state responsibility area.
“Our government and our state responsibility area citizens have already paid and will continue to pay,” Jacob said. “You can give people in this region their due relief.”
Butler’s work with Cal Fire included supervising inmates who cleared brush 100 feet away from structures at no cost to homeowners. California currently has approximately 45 inmate camps. Inmates have also been used to clear state parks, evacuation routes and driveways.
“They work perfectly. You don’t have to babysit them too much. Just make sure you count to 18 every 20 minutes to make sure they’re all still there,” Butler said.
Inmates receive $1.35 per day and $1 per hour for their fire prevention duties.
“They do prefer having projects like that,” Butler said.
Jack Sholver is the chair of the Julian Community Planning Group and also the president of the Julian-Cuyamaca Fire Protection District board. He pays $100 a year for his fire district’s assessment.
“Best bargain I can get,” he said. “I’m not sure why I should pay another $150 for fire prevention activity for which I see very little benefit.”
Vista Fire Protection District covers unincorporated Vista and part of Bonsall. The area has a community emergency response team and has taken other prevention measures.
“We’ve done all of that on our own accord with our own resources,” Fisher said.
He said the fee should be sent to the local fire agencies rather than to Cal Fire.
“The local agencies know what they need. They can spend the money wisely,” said Fisher. “We can get it done. We know where the money needs to go. We know what the risk is.”
The second public comment meeting was scheduled for May 23 in Redding.
The Board of Forestry and Fire Protection statutorily consists of nine members; there is currently one vacancy.