By Karen Brainard
Some Ramona residents are receiving notices from the state warning that they will soon be billed the $150 annual fire prevention fee that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in July 2011.
The notice informs property owners that they will be billed $150 per habitable structure and will have 30 days from the date on the bill to pay or appeal the amount.
According to the Board of Equalization (BOE), it will be sending bills to San Diego County residents between Oct. 30 and Nov. 8. Property owners who do not pay within 30 days will be fined, unless they work out a payment plan with the BOE.
The fee targets property owners living in state responsibility areas (SRAs) where the state is financially responsible to prevent and fight wildland fires.
Ramona is surrounded by SRAs, as is Julian, Santa Ysabel, Alpine, and other East County communities.Cal Fire Deputy Director Janet Upton said the agency estimates the fee affects approximately 11,000 structures in the Ramona area.
Residents can learn if their property is in a SRA by visiting firepreventionfee.org and typing in their address. A map of the SRA boundary line around Ramona shows that the Mt. Woodson area, Dos Picos Park area and San Diego Country Estates are in a SRA.
According to the map, approximate areas in SRAs include the following: west of Etcheverry and Sawday streets, south of Hunter Street, south of Hanson Lane and between Cook Street and San Vicente Road, south of Boundary Avenue, south of Creelman Lane, east of Old Julian Highway/Third Street, north and east of the Ramona Community Center, and north of Pine, Olive and El Paso streets.
Ramona Fire Department/Cal Fire Battalion Chief Burke Kremensky, who personally received a notice, said nine square miles in the center of Ramona’s 75 square miles are not affected. That leaves 66 square miles in Ramona in a SRA.
According to the BOE, each owner of a condominum unit will be billed the $150 but owners of apartments will be billed $150 per building.
For some residents, the notice came as a surprise. Ramona Fire Department/Cal Fire Battalion Chief Saul Villagomez said he has received about 10 calls from residents saying they are already paying for fire protection and questioned why they should have to pay this fee.
Noting that the fee is coming from the state, Villagomez said, “We’ve had no input in it.”
Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD) General Manager David Barnum said the water district will not receive any of the money.
Within Ramona water district boundaries are properties that overlap into SRAs. Homeowners in those areas, who already pay RMWD for fire protection on their property tax bills, should receive a $35 discount on the state fire prevention fee, reducing their charge to $115.
On the firepreventionfee.org website are frequently asked questions—FAQs—with more information about the fee and the appeal process. Kremensky noted that the fee is only for habitable structures and not for barns or outbuildings. If residents are billed for such buildings, they should appeal, he said.
The Ramona water district has added a link on its website, rmwd.org, that directs residents to the fire prevention fee site. The public can also call 888-310-6447 with questions.
Revenue from the fee must be used to fund fire prevention services. Cal Fire estimates the fiscal year 2011-12 fees to total $85 million. To implement the fee, the BOE said it added 11.5 temporary jobs for 2011-12, and 57 limited term jobs for fiscal year 2012-13.
County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, whose Second District includes Ramona, has opposed it from the beginning, calling it a tax.
“The state’s decision to move ahead with the fire tax is wrongheaded and unjust,” said Jacob. “As I’ve said before, the $150-a-year tax unfairly targets property owners who already pay state taxes to fund public safety and those who also pay special fees in their communities for additional fire protection. It amounts to triple taxation. The mailing of the notices is an unfortunate reminder that the state is failing to adequately fund Cal Fire and is turning to already-burdened property owners for a bailout. If the state can’t see the light on how wrong this is, hopefully the courts will.”
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a class-action lawsuit that argues the statewide tax is illegal and seeks to overturn it. The organization considers it a direct violation of Proposition 13.