Farm groups stay engaged in Calif. rural fire fee debate
By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO - Two major statewide farm groups support proposed legislation to kill controversial fire-prevention fees charged to rural residents as debate over the fees is heating up again in the Legislature.
The California Farm Bureau Federation and California Cattlemen's Association remain engaged as lawmakers consider the fate of the $150-per-structure assessments, which were imposed as part of a state budget package and went into effect last fall.
Separate bills by Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, would reverse the fees entirely, exempt property owners served by local fire-protection districts and exempt those whose income is less than twice the federal poverty level.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown has said he would like to expand the use of money from the fees, which are assessed from more than 800,000 residents served by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The administration wants the Legislature to amend the property fee so the money collected can be used for fire-prevention efforts in areas that border the regions where the fee is assessed.
"He's made it clear he is a strong supporter of this charge on rural landowners," said John Gamper, the CFBF's taxation and land use director. "He's really not making any bones over whether it's a fire prevention fee or a fee ... for whatever they want to spend it on."
Since the state Board of Equalization began sending bills out last fall, CCA members have reported numerous problems, said Margo Parks, the organization's legislative director. In a few cases, a property was billed more than once or bills for structures were sent to the wrong landowner, she said.
"Issues like that were fairly common," Parks said.
The farm groups are supporting a lawsuit to overturn the fees by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which argues the fees violate an initiative passed by voters in 2010 that require 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 HJTA's class action in the Superior Court here could be thrown into uncertainty if the Legislature revamps the fees and passes them by a two-thirds majority, Parks said. Democrats achieved supermajorities in both the Senate and Assembly in the 2012 election.
However, opponents in recent weeks have been buoyed by new controversies over the fees, including a disclosure that Cal Fire funneled money from wildfire damage settlements into a special account instead of the state treasury.
That revelation was followed by an opinion from the Legislature's legal counsel that the department is improperly using some of the new revenue to collect damages from those who maliciously or accidentally start fires, instead of its intended purpose.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said there was no intent to hide $3.6 million in wildfire settlement money that was placed in an account kept by the California District Attorneys Association. Most of the money was used to buy digital cameras, radio scanners and other equipment, and for conferences to train county prosecutors and fire investigators.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
California Cattlemen's Association: http://www.calcattlemen.org/
California Farm Bureau Federation: http://www.cfbf.com/index.cfm
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: http://www.fire.ca.gov/
Sen. Ted Gaines: http://cssrc.us/web/1/default.aspx