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Forestry board approves higher fee

November 9, 2011 | The Press-Enterprise | BY JIM MILLER

The Forestry Board, with four new members, OKs the charge on buildings in state-protected areas

SACRAMENTO — A divided California forestry board Wednesday imposed significantly higher fire-prevention fees on people living in rural areas where the state has the main firefighting responsibility.

Four members of the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection appointed three weeks ago by Gov. Jerry Brown helped push through a $150 charge for structures in the 31 million acres of state responsibility area. The vote was 6-2, with one abstention.

Wednesday’s action overrides a fee passed in August that topped out at $90 for dwellings in the most fire-prone parts of the state areas. Discounts would have reduced the fee to almost nothing, and officials said it likely would have raised only a fraction of the $50 million Brown and the Democrat-controlled Legislature envisioned for 2011-12.

The new fee is scheduled to take effect early next year and generate an estimated $85 million in 2011-12. The money would pay for fire-prevention efforts and other costs.

The estimates assume that about 90 percent of property owners live within a local fire district and would be eligible for a $35 discount. The fee for additional dwellings on a parcel is $25 per structure.

“I’m a rural landowner. But the budget is what it is. And the shortfall is what it is,” said Susan Britting, of Coloma, who Brown named to the board Oct. 21. “It is urgent that we take action.”

Brown administration officials have said Britting and the other three appointments were free to make up their own minds about changing the fee. Britting had no comment after the hearing.

Other board members said there is no justification for the new fee and it invites court challenges. Board Chairman Stanley Dixon, of Eureka, said lawmakers “had no clue” when they included the fee in their June budget package.

“I honestly don’t see how in good faith we can do this,” said Dixon, who abstained in protest.

More than 800,000 structures are in the state responsibility area, including about 100,000 in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig told the board that the fee would cost rural residents in the county an estimated $10 million, on top of what they already pay for local fire protection.

“Ten million dollars in my county would pay for a significant increase in service. Instead, we’ll be giving $10 million, with no change in service,” Hartwig said after testifying to the board.

The Brown administration and other fee supporters say that the state effectively subsidizes people living in the state responsibility areas. Experts have blamed population growth in those areas for helping to push the state’s annual firefighting budget close to $1 billion.

Critics call the proposed charge an illegal tax. Opponents tried to overturn the law at the ballot box but failed to meet a signature-collection deadline.

Some groups and local governments, such as San Bernardino County, have talked of filing a lawsuit as soon as the Board of Equalization tries to collect the fee.

Forestry board officials tried to structure Wednesday’s fee so it complies with Prop. 26, the 2010 ballot measure that requires new fees to pay for services that benefit people who pay the fee.

The June budget package specified that the fee will pay for fire-prevention efforts. The Cal Fire budget, however, lists fire-prevention spending of only $23 million.

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said that figure does not reflect all of the department’s prevention-related activities. The department is reviewing its activities to identify all the costs that could be covered by the fee.

“Is there enough prevention work out there in all these different programs? Absolutely,” Pimlott said. “What we’re working to do is teasing out what proportion of all these other programs involves fire prevention so we can have the true picture of what that cost is. We want something to pass the laugh test.”

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