Property owners across California have begun receiving a Notice of Determination. The purpose of this notice is to inform homeowners of a new fee being levied by the government. Sent out by the Board of Equalization on behalf of the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), this annual fee begins at $115, increasing up to $150 per habitable structure on properties located within a State Responsibility Area (SRA). These notices are giving property owners a mere 30 days to pay up, or risk exorbitant financial penalties which rival credit card companies, without any option for an extension of time.
Many residents are upset with this additional bill; they are already paying local organizations for fire protection. A large number of citizens affected by these new fees are on fixed income and cannot afford such a large increase in their annual expenditures. Some residents view this bill as an attack on their choice to live outside of the city.
Bobbie Winn is a resident of Wilton and owns a residence located within an SRA. She is required to pay the new fee even though her neighbors just across the street are outside of the designated area and are not subject to the same fee. Other residents of Wilton have complained that the fee is not consistent from one homeowner to the next, and that it is unclear how the fees are determined. They are left to wonder if those arbitrary SRA lines make a difference between total loss and being protected by local fire departments when a fire is raging nearby.
With the state experiencing another drought and fires raging throughout California, CalFire’s pleas for additional funding are that much more important. Protecting such large areas comes with certain costs, and CalFire’s budget has already been cut back by the state. This bill, however, does not provide fire protection. Instead, the focus is on fire prevention. One fire captain, who has been fighting fires with CalFire for more than 20 years, stresses the importance of prevention, as the loss of life and property far exceeds the cost of fire prevention.
It is important to note that before this bill, the number of fires and amount of damage done by those fires has gone down significantly in recent years. However, wild fires have been and continue to be a pressing threat, especially since people are still taking up residence in high-risk areas.
Despite this, the state of California has repeatedly cut budgets for CalFire, and then created an emergency need for new revenue. California wildfires are not a new problem, yet the government does not appear to account for potential loss of property in its budgeting efforts from year to year. The wording of the bill is vague and does not clearly state how funds are to be allocated. The bill is generally supposed to support fire prevention efforts, though fire prevention is not clearly defined and funds can be diverted to support any project the board authorizes.
One could argue that a better and more just solution would be to send notices to all property owners in California. The cost per structure would decrease and have less of a financial impact on individuals. This approach has been argued in the Legislature. The problem with this more impartial levying of fees is that requiring all property owners to pay turns this bill into a tax, which requires a two-thirds vote of each house in the Legislature. History has shown such a bill is not likely to pass.
As citizens of California, how can we trust a government to do the right thing when it is willing to spend billions on a high speed railroad the majority of the citizens don’t want? Or to retro-fit a major bridge in the San Francisco area where it is discovered that some testing has been tainted? This appears to be yet another example of an out-of-control government beholden primarily to the unions.
Assembly Bill ABx1 29 Background
On July 7th, 2011, California Governor Jerry Brown approved Assembly Bill No. 29 (ABx1 29). The official name is the Fire Prevention Fee. This bill is commonly being reported by the media as a “$150 annual fire prevention fee or tax.” The bill was introduced by Assemblymember Bob Blumenfield to the Budget Act of 2011. Interestingly enough, Blumenfield’s 40th District is mostly unaffected by this bill (See images at bottom of article).
In fact, the $150 applies to each habitable structure and is not a per property annual fee. The bill requires the State Board of Equalization (BOE) to assess and collect the fee, charged on each habitable structure (dwelling unit) on a parcel within a State Responsibility Area (SRA). If the Fund contains sufficient amounts to support specified fire prevention activities, then the fee may not be collected for that fiscal year. The bill does not specify which department or agency would determine if there are or are not sufficient funds. BOE believes this should be the responsibility of the LAO or DOF.
Revenues raised by this bill are to go to fire prevention, not fire fighting. As of publication, there is not a law that addresses fire protection.
How Are the Fees Collected and Who Pays?
The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) will transmit to BOE the name and address of each person liable for the fee, the amount of the fee to be assessed, and a contact phone number for the Fire Board. CalFire may also include additional information regarding how the fee owed (or the amount per structure) was determined. The BOE will be sending out notices by County, in alphabetical order. According to the bill, each dwelling unit is defined as “a unit providing independent living facilities for one or more persons, including provisions for living, sleeping, eating, cooking, and sanitation. Mobile and manufactured homes and condominiums are considered as dwelling units.”
Additionally, a habitable structure is defined as “a building that contains one or more dwelling units or that can be occupied for residential use.” This does not include incidental buildings such as detached garages, barns, outdoor sanitation facilities, or sheds.
If a person receiving the notice would like to petition for redetermination of the fee amount, or appeal the fee, the petition must be sent to the Fire Board, CalFire, and BOE within 30 days. During the pending appeal, the BOE will stay all collection until CalFire makes a final determination of the appeal. CalFire has 60 days to complete its review of the petition, and BOE will periodically follow up with CalFire regarding the resolution of the appeal.
After CalFire makes a final determination, the BOE would issue a notice to the fee payer which includes language regarding the 20-percent penalty that would be assessed for each 30-day period in which the fee remains unpaid.
The 20-percent penalty for appealed cases would be imposed in place of the one-time 10 percent penalty imposed under the Fee Collection Procedures Law. The 10-percent penalty would apply to those assessments that are not appealed but remain unpaid after the fee has become due and payable. No extensions will be given for any reason.
Under qualifying conditions, the owner of a habitable structure could receive a $35 deduction if the person is a property owner of a habitable structure within the SRA and is also within the boundaries of a local agency that provides fire protection services.
If a property owner had 3 habitable structures on a single parcel of land, the total fee amount would be $450, or $345 if the owner qualified for the deduction. A multi-dwelling structure, such as an apartment, counts as a single habitable structure, which would be $150.Government owned or non-profit owned structures are subject to the same fee structure.
On July 1, 2013, and annually thereafter, the BOE shall adjust the fees imposed to reflect the rate of inflation, as calculated by the Implicit Price Deflator for State and Local Government Purchases of Goods and Services for the United States.
How Much Does This Cost Taxpayers?
The initial startup cost for the BOE for fiscal year 2011-12 is estimated to be $4,853,000. The costs for fiscal year 2012-13 are estimated to be $8,851,000 and require 69.2 administrative positions to run the program. These costs include BOE’s mailing an estimated 850,000 assessments each year, over a 10-month period.
For CalFire, the cost to administer this bill is estimated to be $9,283,000 and will require 29.5 positions in the 2012-13 Governor’s Budget. An additional $1,000 has been allocated from the General Fund to CalFire for the administrative costs to implement this act. The recurring costs of administering this bill are taken from the revenue.
How Much Revenue is Raised?
The original bill estimated $200,000,000 in annual revenues. However, the current Governor’s budget places funding levels at $76,303,000. How much is leftover after the costs of administration by the multiple agencies involved?
Gross Funding: $76,303,000
BOE Costs: $8,851,000
CalFire Costs: $9,283,000
Net Funding: $58,169,000
If a property owner paid the state a fee in the amount of $150, $35.66 of that would go to administrative costs before it ever touches fire prevention causes.
How is the Revenue Used?
The revenue is to be used ONLY for fire prevention. None of the funding is to be allocated towards fire fighting.
The following information is taken directly from a CalFire memo:
(c) It is the intent of the Legislature that the moneys in this fund be fully appropriated to the board and the department each year in order to effectuate the purposes of this chapter.
(d) Moneys in the fund shall be used only for the following fire prevention activities, which shall benefit owners of structures within the state responsibility areas who are required to pay the annual fire prevention fee pursuant to this chapter:
(1) Local assistance grants pursuant to subdivision (e).
(2) Grants to Fire Safe Councils, the California Conservation Corps, or certified local conservation corps for fire prevention projects and activities in the state responsibility areas.
(3) Grants to a qualified nonprofit organization with a demonstrated ability to satisfactorily plan, implement, and complete a fire prevention project applicable to the state responsibility areas. The department may establish other qualifying criteria.
(4) Inspections by the department for compliance with defensible space requirements around structures in state responsibility areas as required by Section 4291.
(5) Public education to reduce fire risk in the state responsibility areas.
(6) Fire severity and fire hazard mapping by the department in the state responsibility areas.
(7) Other fire prevention projects in the state responsibility areas, authorized by the board.
(e) (1) The board shall establish a local assistance grant program for fire prevention activities designed to benefit structures within state responsibility areas, including public education, that are provided by counties and other local agencies, including special districts, with state responsibility areas within their jurisdictions.
(2) In order to ensure an equitable distribution of funds, the amount of each grant shall be based on the number of structures in state responsibility areas for which the applicant is legally responsible and the amount of moneys made available in the annual Budget Act for this local assistance grant program.
Grants can be made to almost any project the Board authorizes. This could include grants to fire protection district for inspection programs, Fire Safe Council vegetation management, development of county fire plans, etc. The Board is not limited, except from the standpoint that it must be used for fire prevention, not protection.
History on Fire Protection Fees in California
In fiscal year 2003-04, the Legislature enacted SB 1049 to impose an annual SRA fire protection fee on each parcel of land located within SRAs. However, the fee was repealed by SB 1112 before any fees were collected.
For the 2007-08 budget process, the LAO recommended reenacting a fire protection fee in SRA’s.
In FY 2008-09, SB 1617, which was very similar to this bill, ABx1 29, would have required to BOE to assess and collect a $50 fee. This bill died on the floor and was placed in the Assembly’s inactive file.
In 2009, ABx3 41, would have required CalFire to adopt emergency regulations to establish a fee to cover fire protection costs and services for structures within SRAs, based on the fire hazard severity zone. BOE would have assessed and collected these fees as well. This bill was withdrawn from enrollment and held in the Legislature.
If you are a property owner in the SRA and would like to appeal or petition for redetermination, follow the instructions on this page.
Some CalFire Statistics
Calculated from a 5 year average from 2005-2010 inside of SRA, California suffered through 4,376 fires per year, 218,447 acres burned per year, $100,223,017 worth of damage, and 943 structures destroyed.
In fiscal year 2009-10, the CalFire fire suppression costs were $274.1 million. FY 2010-11 were $51 million. Fire prevention costs are unreported.
Out of the 20 largest California wildland fires, by structures destroyed, 6 of these were caused by arson and 6 are under investigation or undetermined.
Out of the 20 largest California wildland fires, by acreage burned, 11 of these were caused by powerlines or lightning. 5 were human-caused.
Sources and Further Reading About the Fire Prevention Fee
BOE Budget with ABx1 29 FY 2012-13:
BOE Bill Analysis:
CalFire Statistics on Fires:
Top 20 Largest Fires Based on Structures Destroyed:
Top 20 Largest Fires Based on Acreage Burned: