Santa Barbara County residents have been receiving bills for the new State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee, and the Board of Supervisors wants to send a strongly worded letter of concern to the state.
Even with the new fees, CalFire won’t get any additional resources, since the money has to backfill for the many cuts made by the state, which has caused a lot of frustration for the public, according to CalFire San Luis Obispo Unit Chief Robert Lewin.
He gave a presentation on the new fees to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, although the legislation for the fees was approved in July 2011 as part of the state budget.
The fees will charge up to $150 per habitable structure in areas covered by state fire resources.
State Responsibility Areas have watershed value and are threatened by wildfire, and the designation applies to 31 million acres across California. It excludes incorporated cities and federal lands, such as the Los Padres National Forest.
There are SRAs in Santa Barbara County even though there are no CalFire stations or resources there — or at least aren’t labeled that way.
Santa Barbara is one of six “contract counties” that have the county fire departments handle wildland fire duties, but still has the full, immediate support of nearby state resources when necessary, Lewin said.
“It’s more of a budget shell game than it is a fire tax,” Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said of the fee.
Board chairwoman Doreen Farr noted that public frustration comes from a duplication of cost for taxpayers while there will be no enhancement to fire protection services or programs.
Plus, she noted, the bills being paid right now are actually for the 2011-12 year — the bills for the current year will be coming later.
The supervisors also expressed concern with the lack of equity in how structures are taxed. It’s based on parcel numbers, so a three-unit apartment building would receive one bill while each unit of a condominium would receive a bill, Lewin explained.
“I’m very concerned about what I consider to be capricious nature of who gets charged and who doesn’t,” Farr said, noting that “habitable structures” doesn’t apply to commercial buildings.
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf acknowledged that the entire board had concerns, but wanted to make sure that CalFire’s budget wasn’t affected by any opposition.
The board voted to write a letter of strong concern or opposition to the state — which it will consider at a January meeting — and continue following the litigation and implementation of the law. The board may even consider joining the large class-action-type lawsuits aiming to overturn the fee.
There are 14,000 structures in Santa Barbara County that have this fee levied on them. The maps of these State Responsibility Areas were created for fire protection purposes, not billing, and won’t be reviewed until 2015, Lewin said.
He and the county supervisors urged anyone who disputes the fee to file a Petition of Redetermination with the state and pay the fee, so additional penalties are not imposed. There can be mistakes on the mapping, a miscalculation of the fee or mistakes as to the number of habitable structures on a parcel, Lewin added.
Property owners protected by another fire department or district get a small discount and have to pay $115 per structure.
The Montecito Fire Protection District board adopted a resolution in August to oppose this new fee, saying that it would not directly benefit the community.
Several public speakers urged the Board of Supervisors to take action and oppose the fee, perhaps joining the existing lawsuits that are already in motion.
“What has been said in no uncertain terms here is, the state had a hole in its general fund, and called this a fee since it didn’t have the votes for a tax,” said Andy Caldwell, executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business.
There’s also no guarantee that these fees would make CalFire whole again after earlier budget cuts, he said.
Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association Executive Director Joe Armendariz urged the county to join the Howard Jarvis lawsuit and keep the fee money — about $2 million per year for Santa Barbara County — in the hands of residents.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association works to protect Proposition 13 and the right to limited taxation, according to the website dedicated to this lawsuit. The lawsuit claims the new fee is an illegal tax, and hopes to overturn the law.
State Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, has introduced a bill to repeal the fire tax, calling it illegal and unfair.