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Fire fee law needs repairs

Capitol Journal: It was meant to balance the budget, but critics are fighting it.

August 08, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • A California firefighter uses a shovel to shield his face from the heat of a burning house.
A California firefighter uses a shovel to shield his face from the heat of… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

From Sacramento

The topic today is fire fees. But it's really more than that. It's also about how policy is written and politics is played in California's capital.

On the surface, the new state fire fee passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown seems prudent and fair. It requires people who live in woodsy and brushy terrain, being soothed by nature, to pay a larger share of their fire protection costs.

But this legislation was written in such haste, without public scrutiny or Capitol vetting, that no one really is sure how it's going to work. It was cobbled together at the last moment before the Legislature's June 15 budget deadline in order to help balance the deficit-ridden general fund.

And it smacks of Democratic payback for the Republicans' refusal to vote for Brown's tax proposal. Republican legislators represent most of the rural areas targeted for fire fees.

A couple of obstacles loom, however, before Sacramento can pocket the fee money.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. intends to sue, claiming that the fee actually is a tax. Therefore it should have required a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, not a simple majority. The bill passed pretty much on a party line vote.

Republican state Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Roseville) is trying to generate support for a ballot referendum to repeal the fee. He needs to collect 505,000 voter signatures by Oct. 6 and concedes "it's an uphill battle."

The cost of collecting enough signatures will be at least $2 million. There's not enough at stake for special interests or deep-pocket types to bankroll such a venture. The proposed annual fee, per habitable structure, is capped at $150.

"Maybe it'll catch fire," Gaines told me, not really intending the pun. "It could take off with folks of a populist perspective. It's another intrusion of government coming at the people's wallet."

But let's back up.

The notion of "beneficiary pays" — or should — has been kicking around for years.

In 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature whacked the budget for Cal Fire — the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — by $50 million. To replace the money, a $35 fee was imposed on each parcel of property likely to be serviced by state firefighters.

But there was such a rural stink, plus legal uncertainty, that the Legislature and new Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger repealed the fee.

In 2009, Schwarzenegger pushed for a surcharge on all property insurance premiums to improve emergency preparedness, not just for wildfires but also for earthquakes, floods and potential terrorist attacks. Legally, however, the surcharge was considered a tax, requiring a two-thirds vote. Republicans naturally balked.

This year, Brown was desperate to find two Republicans in each house to vote for placing a tax measure on the ballot. The governor finally gave up just before the budget deadline.

To generate $200 million annually for the general fund, Democrats quickly voted to assess the "fire prevention fee" on an estimated 846,000 homeowners living in "state responsibility areas" — primarily Cal Fire territory, covering one-third of California.

Again, the goal was not to strengthen firefighting. It was to seize $200 million from Cal Fire and replace it with the fire fee.

Simultaneously, Brown and Democrats saved $31 million by reducing state fire engine crew members from four to three.

Wonder how that's going to look when fatigued firefighters are battling, short-handed, to control wind-whipped blazes in September. Please spare us the politicians' helicopter visits.

Anyway, the governor asserted that the fire fee "will reduce general fund costs and ensure property owners in developed wild land areas pay for a portion of the [state] fire and emergency response services they receive."

That kind of talk rankles rural folks, especially in the Sierra.

Some of their arguments: The vast majority already are being taxed to pay for local fire departments. The state fee will make it practically impossible to raise taxes for local districts. Cal Fire doesn't operate in all these places anyway; some fire protection is contracted out to the federal or local governments. There's no guarantee the revenue will be spent in areas where it's generated.

"We have hydrants, two fire stations within four miles, a good road system, no one has wood roofs and we've cleaned up our natural areas," says Hank Weston, a Nevada County supervisor and retired Cal Fire chief, speaking of his mountain community. "We should be looked at differently than some house five miles up a canyon."

But one big poster county for a state fire fee is San Diego, which has suffered two deadly wild fires in the last decade. Still, voters there have repeatedly rejected tax increases to beef up fire crews and upgrade equipment.

"Yes, those people not willing to be taxed need to pay for fire protection," agrees Paul Smith, lobbyist for the Regional Council of Rural Counties. But he says the new fire fee is "crazy."

This raises a separate issue: If rural counties keep electing Republicans who adamantly refuse to raise taxes, under any circumstances, then they shouldn't be surprised when desired services can't be funded and Democrats come rooting around for whatever revenue they can find.

"I don't think of this as a retribution thing," says Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Bob Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills), the fee bill's author. But he notes that Republicans did refuse to help Democrats balance the budget.

The fire fee "could have been part of negotiation and compromise," Blumenfield says. "But if you don't participate in the process, then the result may not come out the way you want."

The result is a flawed fire fee that should be fixed so it doesn't go up in smoke.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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