By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO -- A member of the board that collects state taxes told hundreds of participants in a telephone town-hall meeting July 15 that he sympathizes with their frustration over fees charged for fire prevention in rural areas.
George Runner, who represents a large swath of interior California on the state Board of Equalization, said he supports efforts in court and in the Legislature to repeal the fees but urged disgruntled landowners to pay the money under protest.
"You do not want to be in a position of protest by not paying your bill," Runner said. "That only creates more exposure to you in interest and penalties."
More than 800 registered to take part in the call, the first of two scheduled telephone meetings to discuss lingering confusion over the fees that were enacted as part of the 2011 state budget package. Another conference call is slated for July 23.
The calls come as the Board of Equalization resumed sending out bills this week after a four-month delay. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection had suspended this year's fire fee bills after more than 1,300 parcels were incorrectly identified in state responsibility area boundaries, said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber.
The California Farm Bureau Federation and California Cattlemen's Association have fought unsuccessfully to stop the $150-per-structure assessments, which went into effect last fall. The fees impact more than 800,000 rural landowners who fall within Cal Fire's service boundaries.
So far, the state has mailed more than 776,000 bills and collected about $77 million in fees, Runner said. The state has received about 90,000 appeals which have resulted in $1.6 million in refunds, he said. There are about 93,000 unpaid bills, which makes for a 13 percent noncompliance rate, he said.
"That's quite a high noncompliance rate for the programs we do at the Board of Equalization," Runner said.
State lawmakers and other officials have warned property owners not to ignore their bills because they can incur fines of up to 20 percent a month if the charges aren't paid within 30 days. Instead, they encouraged landowners to write "paid in protest" on their checks and also submit petitions formally protesting the fees.
However, many participants in the July 15 conference call said they couldn't afford the fees. One was an 81-year-old Cottonwood, Calif., widow who lives on 5 acres and said she relies on Social Security.
"I've already got one (bill) with interest," she said. "You tell us to go ahead and pay it, but I don't have the money to pay it. I don't know what to do."
A Durham, Calif., resident said he doesn't know why he has to pay the fee since he lives near well-irrigated almond orchards and flooded rice fields. Another caller said he has received bills but none of his neighbors has.
Runner said people with financial hardships can set up payment plans with the state. Nielsen, who was on the call, said he understood the residents' plight.
"There has been a callous disregard of you and of all the people like you who are under your circumstances," he said, adding that constituents of the urban lawmakers who enacted the fees won't be subject to them.
Runner and Nielsen said they are placing their hopes in a class action filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which argues the fees violate an initiative passed by voters in 2010 that required a budget containing tax increases to pass the Legislature with a two-thirds majority. The 2011-2012 budget package, which included the fees in an effort to raise $85 million to offset costs to Cal Fire, passed by simple majorities. The initial pretrial hearing on the lawsuit is set for July 19 in Sacramento Superior Court.
Several bills in the Legislature to address the fees have languished in committees or been voted down. Separate bills by Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, would have reversed the fees entirely, exempted property owners served by local fire-protection districts and exempted those whose income is less than twice the federal poverty level.
The July 15 meeting was for residents of Butte, Glenn, Lassen, Modoc, Plumas, Siskiyou, Shasta and Tehama Counties. The 6 p.m. event on July 23 will be for residents of Placer, Sierra, Nevada and Yuba counties.
Participants in the second town-hall are asked to register at least 24 hours in advance at boe.ca.gov/townhall or by calling (916) 324-4970.
Fire fee opponents' information website: http://www.calfirefee.com
California Board of Equalization: http://www.boe.ca.gov
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: http://www.fire.ca.gov