State Board of Forestry hears opposition to fire tax

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.

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