This fall, homeowners in state-managed fire zones will owe Sacramento another $150 every year without receiving any new services, even if they are already protected by local fire districts. That’s because a new bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last summer will attempt to recoup funding from massive budget cuts made to CalFire, the state’s firefighting agency.
Assembly Bill X1 29, which would affect thousands of homes in Santa Barbara County, states that owners of property in a State Responsibility Area, a boundary where the state is responsible for suppressing fires, must pay $150 for each “habitable structure” on their property, in addition to the property tax that already goes toward fire protection.
The fee would affect many homes north of Cathedral Oaks, Foothill, Sycamore Canyon and East Valley roads. Click here to view a map of the affected neighborhoods.
Homeowners in these areas are likely to see a notice to pay in their mailboxes in September or October.
Opponents of the law, which was introduced last year in the Legislature by Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Woodland Hills, say residents of the designated areas already pay property taxes that go to their fire service agencies and that a new fee could constitute double taxation. For that reason, they say, a lawsuit challenging the fee is imminent.
Whether the payments constitute a new fee or a tax, which would require voter approval, remains an open question.
Either way, that extra cost raised the ire of the Montecito Fire Protection District Board of Directors, which sent out a news release last week decrying the move.
“It has always been the board’s desire to avoid imposing additional taxes or fees upon the district’s constituents,” Roy Jenson, Montecito Fire District board president, said in the statement.
“We want to make it clear that this new fee is not imposed by the district, and will not directly benefit the community in any way.”
Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, whose district includes Montecito, voted for the bill last summer. He said Thursday that the fee is necessary to allow CalFire to keep critical services, like fire prevention, in place.
CalFire, which is funded by the state’s general fund, has seen its budget cut by $80 million over the past two years.
“The damage that would occur if we didn’t pay is catastrophic,” Williams said.
Montecito Fire Protection District Chief Chip Hickman spoke with Noozhawk on Wednesday. He said he believes the fee is “double-taxing our constituents” and that he doesn’t expect the district to see any of that money in the future.
Hickman said the state has the fiscal responsibility to address fire suppression to help protect the watershed, not to protect structures.
“I buy the fact that there’s a greater chance a fire could start (if structures are present),” he said. “Do I believe that this method of attaching a fee is double taxation? Absolutely.”
Hickman said special districts were somewhat overlooked in the legislation.
“In cities, you don’t have SRA lands,” he said.
In Montecito’s district, however, there are.
Hickman said he is confident that local fire agencies will mount opposition to the law and file a lawsuit against the state.
“Someone will challenge this,” he said.
For Hickman, like many fire chiefs in California, State Responsibility Areas are controversial.
Even the boundaries are contentious. Hickman recalled when CalFire moved the SRA boundary line to East Valley Road from East Mountain Drive several years ago, a move he called “arbitrary.” As a result, hundreds of Montecito homes were incorporated into the SRA.
“Watershed is what you see on the side of the mountain, not a bunch of landscaped properties and streets of asphalt,” he said.
Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Michael Dyer declined to issue an opinion on the subject Wednesday, but he is the president of the Fire Chief Association of Contract Counties, which has publicly opposed the law.
The Santa Barbara County Fire Department receives $6.7 million annually from CalFire to protect wildland areas in the county, but that does not include the cost of protecting homes or conducting rescues.
Santa Barbara is one of six counties — Ventura, Kern, Los Angeles, Orange and Marin being the others — that contracts with CalFire to protect State Responsibility Areas and receives money from the state agency to protect wildland areas.
The county Fire Department worked through budget struggles earlier this year as it pondered how to maintain its own levels of service with property taxes at a low point.
CalFire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson said the new fee will help sustain current services her agency provides.
“That’s going to allow us to continue defensible space and will allow us to protect community,” she said.