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Rural Fire Protection Fee Likely

State firefighting agency must find way to recoup $50 million in funding sliced from new budget. Some other states use the direct support plan.

August 01, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The budget passed this week by the Legislature contains a surprise for millions of rural Californians: For the first time, they will be asked to directly support the state firefighters who guard them each summer.

The budget slices $50 million for firefighting from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and tells the agency to find a way to recoup that money from residents in the one-third of California where state crews provide wildfire protection. State fire officials say they do not know exactly how they'll do that, but some kind of fee is likely. "This is unprecedented," department spokeswoman Karen Terrill said.

The notion of making people who live in the flammable countryside pay directly for fire suppression has been raised repeatedly over the years, but has always been beat back in the Legislature. Instead, the state fire department gets roughly $340 million a year from the general fund to fight fires on nearly 32 million sparsely settled acres.

That so-called state responsibility land falls mostly along the Sierra foothills, Coast range, Cascade mountains in Northern California and deserts in Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

The budget that Gov. Gray Davis is expected to sign Saturday erases $50 million from the state fire protection fund, but it does not dictate exactly how or how much -- landowners should pay to make up the difference. The Legislature is expected to wrestle with fee structure details when it returns from summer recess Aug. 18.

The recommendation that lawmakers charge rural landowners for fire protection came from the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, which suggested that landowners pick up half -- or $170 million -- of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's firefighting budget. "This approach is used in Oregon and Washington, and appears to be a reasonable approach to allocating costs of a service for which the benefits and costs cannot be precisely measured and allocated," the analyst's office wrote in February.

The Senate budget subcommittee that handles money for environmental protection inserted that recommendation in the budget, but reduced the maximum burden on landowners to $50 million. Until the Legislature finally passed a budget this week, the provision got little notice. But as word spreads, lawmakers can expect resistance.

Bruce Peterman lives on a five-acre lot in steep, chaparral country near Anza, not far from the border of Riverside and San Diego counties. Two weeks ago, he watched state fire crews fight a nearby blaze that scorched more than 29 square miles and forced the evacuation of hundreds. But on Thursday, he recoiled from the notion of paying directly for fire protection.

"The fire does not just affect me," he said. "It affects flash flooding down river, it affects the watershed. So that affects the water delivery to cities. More water has to be brought in from Northern California if we lose our watershed up here. Why should I have to pay for it? Those of us who live out here pay the same taxes to the state that those in the city pay. Why should we pay for their fire department, why should we pay for their road use? It cuts both ways."

Local fire officials oppose the measure too. They say it will force the roughly 7 million people who live in the wild lands where the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection takes responsibility -- generally areas with no more than three houses per acre -- to pay twice for fire protection. That's because the agency's turf often overlaps with local fire districts, whose main charge is to protect homes and property.

In some places, such as Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection pays county fire districts to protect wild lands and has little or no presence. Elsewhere, a town or county may pay the state agency to provide all of its emergency services, from responding to car wrecks to finding lost hikers.

"You could be taxed by your local fire department, and you could be paying a supplemental tax to your local fire department for enhanced services, and then you could be taxed by the state of California for fire protection, which more than likely would have been provided by the local agency," said Jeff Meston, who heads the Novato Fire Protection District and tracks legislation for the California Fire Chiefs Assn. and Fire Districts Assn. of California.

"Although there was no plan to raise taxes," he said of the Legislature, "frankly, they are raising taxes. And they're really going to raise it on the backs of local fire agencies that already have a mission and a funding source."

Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City), who represents many people who depend upon the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to save their homes, said the fee raises myriad questions. "Is it a parcel fee? Or, if one guy had 10 acres and one guy has one acre, do they both pay the same? If they don't, how do you do it?" he asked.

The legislative analyst's office suggested that the fee could be based on fire risk or the past cost of fires in the area. Oregon and Washington base their fees on landscape type, such as timber or range. But the easiest way to go would be a per-acre fee, said Mark Newton, director of resources for the Legislative Analyst's Office. "We're looking at something to be collected at the same time as the property tax," he said.

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