Residents in rural California may be surprised to receive a new fire fee bill intended to defray the State’s costs for fire prevention services. In an attempt to balance the budget, the Fire Prevention Fee was passed by the legislature, and signed by the Governor, in 2011 under AB1x 29, and is expected to raise an estimated $84 million in its first year of implementation. The fee is applied to “all habitable structures within the State Responsibility Area (SRA)” impacting more than 825,000 rural homeowners.
According to the State of California website, the SRA “is the area of the state where the State of California is financially responsible for the prevention and suppression of wildfires. The SRA does not include lands within city boundaries or in federal ownership.” Essentially, the SRA includes the 31 million acres of rural land serviced by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), about 1/3 of the state. Buildings subject to the fee were identified by CalFire based on being located in wooded and brushy areas. To determine if your home is located within the SRA, visit http://www.firepreventionfee.org/.
Bills are being sent to counties in alphabetical order, with Alameda and Alpine Counties receiving their bills back in August, and Yuba County receiving theirs by the end of the year. Current invoices are for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. A second round of bills will be sent in March 2013 for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, causing many owners to pay for two years of service within the same twelve month period. Owners have thirty days to send payment or to apply for a Petition of Redetermination. However, the Howard Jarvis Tax Association urges owners to pay the bill “under protest” and then file the petition to avoid penalties, interest and a lien on your property, which can result in foreclosure.
Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Murrieta) encourages owners to “read the bill carefully, determine whether they reside within the SRA zone, ensure that they are only billed for habitable structures, and that they have received the proper discounts for being within a special fire district or protected by a local fire agency.” The fee is levied at $150.00 per habitable structure, which the State defines as “a building that can be occupied for residential use.” If your home is located within the SRA, but also within the boundaries of a local fire protection agency, the fee will be reduced by $35.00 per habitable structure.
This could be especially costly for homeowners associations in rural areas. “The new regulations assess a fee of $150.00 for the ‘first dwelling unit’ and $25.00 ‘for each additional dwelling unit up to the total dwelling units contained in the multi-dwelling unit structure’,” says Skip Daum, advocate for CAI’s California Legislative Action Committee. “If you have a condo – with a lot of units – and it is in a State Responsibility Area, these regulations could be very costly on an annual basis.” In addition, Associations will need to determine how the fee will be paid: by each owner individually, by the Association as part of the annual budget, or through a special assessment.
The fee has already met its share of controversy, with several legislators calling the fee a tax, which requires a two-thirds vote to enact, rather than the simple majority it received. In his signing message, Governor Brown called the fee “consistent with the ‘beneficiary pays principle’.” If the Fire Prevention Fee is successful, it could be applied to other state services, which have experienced similar budget cuts in recent years. The Howard Jarvis Tax Association has filed a class action lawsuit to overturn the fee, challenging its constitutionality on the grounds that it is really a tax. For more information on the legal challenge, or to file a Petition for Redemption, visit firetaxprotest.org.