‘Fire Prevention Fee’ explained

Fire tax? Fire fee? Have you paid it? Have you protested? Is it an illegal tax and if so, how can the state make you pay? Why do homeowners in only certain areas must pay this? It is all very confusing.

The Fire Prevention Fee is an annual fee assessed to owners of “habitable structures” located within the State Responsibility Area (SRA). Assembly Bill X1 29 went into effect July 8, 2011, and required that the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) create the Fire Prevention Fee to pay for fire prevention services throughout the state in locations designated as SRA.

Read: Unincorporated Riverside county. This fee effects residents of Anza, Aguanga and other local areas.

What are the habitable strictures within the SRA? The lands include state and privately-owned forest, watershed, and range land in which the primary financial responsibility for preventing and suppressing wildland fires rests with the state. Habitable structures are homes within these areas. Bare land is exempt from paying the fee.

“Let’s talk about the fire tax,” said senator Ted Gaines on social media. “Approved in 2011 by the Governor [Jerry Brown] and Legislature, this marks the sixth year bills have hit the mail boxes of approximately 800,000 Californians…I have been opposed to the fire tax since day one.”

Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA), a taxpayer advocate group, states this on their website:

“This is the Fire Tax case – HJTA v. California Dept. of Forestry, currently pending – in which HJTA is challenging the fire prevention fee imposed on owners of habitable structures within the State Responsibility Area. We assert the ‘fee’ is actually a tax, and is thus invalid because it failed to receive two-thirds support in either house of the Legislature.”

Fees are charged to recover the government’s cost to provide some service to the person paying the fee or to regulate business. Taxes are intended to raise revenue and do not need to be related in any specific way to benefits received by, or risks posed by the payer. The California State Legislature can enact fees with a simple majority vote, but needs a two-thirds vote of each house to enact taxes.

So, what is it all for?

“Not one red cent of this ‘fee’ goes toward actually fighting fires,” commented Leonard Handzlik on Facebook, amid a spirited debate on the fee. He’s right.

According to the state, the fee funds fire prevention services in the SRA. These activities include fuel reduction projects, defensible space inspections, fire prevention engineering, emergency evacuation planning, fire prevention education, fire hazard severity mapping, implementation of state and local Fire Plans, fire prevention grants awarded to local nonprofit groups, and law enforcement activities such as arson investigation. All great things, but not anything directly related to boots-on-the-ground firefighting within the communities forced to pay the fee.

“The tax pays for education. The tax money does not go to the fire department. So far, I have only received a pamphlet for my tax dollars,” added Sharon Evans.

And you will pay. A local resident said, “They will take it out of your tax return if you don’t pay … . They did to us.”

If not paid within 30 days, the amount of the fee ($152.33) added penalties apply and if a homeowner continues to ignore the bill, state tax refunds may be garnished or a lien attached to the title of the home.

There was a statement on social media that implied that if a homeowner did not pay the fee, in the case of a wildfire, Cal Fire would ignore their property and allow it to burn. That is very untrue.

At the May 10 AVMAC meeting guest speaker Cal Fire Capt. David Roman stated that, “If you haven’t done your part, I have to pass it up,” but this is in reference to maintaining defensible space, like clearing brush from the side of a house, not whether or not you paid a bill. This is to protect his firefighters and resources. Rumors such as this continue to swirl around the controversy about the fee.

Homeowners in the areas affected by the fee are do have recourse. Though the fee must be paid, there are certain procedures that can help obtain a refund should the HJTA win in court. For more details, visit http://firetaxprotest.org/.

For more information regarding the regulations that define the fee, how it is collected and how it can be appealed, visit http://bofdata.fire.ca.gov/regulations/proposed_rule_packages/sra_fire_prevention_benefit_fee_2012/approved_sra_fee_language_march-2013.pdf.

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