Commentary: Fire tax on rural Californians is both unfair and illegal


Issue Date: October 31, 2012
By George Runner
Rural property owners have been receiving bills from the state of California for a “fire prevention fee” that taxpayer advocates consider an illegal tax. The bills charge property owners $150 per habitable structure and will continue to be mailed through early December.

If it hasn't already arrived, a fire tax bill is coming soon to a mailbox near you. It's not fair; it's not constitutional, but as a result of a budget proposal by Gov. Brown that was adopted by the Legislature, the bills are coming all the same.

In August, the state of California began mailing the first of more than 825,000 "fire prevention fee" bills to Californians who own property with a habitable structure in the State Responsibility Area (SRA)—those 31 million acres where the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has primary responsibility for fire prevention and suppression. The bills, which charge property owners $150 per habitable structure, are going out in alphabetical order by county between August and early December (see story).

It doesn't matter whether you've invested time, sweat and money to meet the state's ever-evolving fire standards. It doesn't matter whether you experience any benefit from Cal Fire prevention activities. It doesn't even matter whether you already pay for local fire service—though if you do, you'll get a $35 discount.

My office is currently receiving phone calls from property owners throughout the state who are outraged by this unfair tax. Some are on fixed incomes and can't even afford to make a minimum payment. Others are upset because they have already invested their hard-earned dollars to keep their property safe.

In one case, a rancher named George invested thousands of dollars in fire-fighting equipment to protect his own cattle and home. His property has more than 100 acre-feet of water on it, which he regularly allows Cal Fire to use (for free) to fight fires in the area.

Does George get a deduction on his "fire prevention" bill?

Not a chance.

Like it or not, if you live in an SRA, the state will send you a bill. And if you don't pay within 30 days, you could face steep penalties and interest. The highest penalties—20 percent per month—are reserved for those who don't pay after losing their appeals.

This first round of bills is expected to raise $84 million to help pay for the state's operations last fiscal year. The next round of bills is just around the corner—they'll be mailed beginning March 2013.

Forget the photos of firefighters putting out fires. This new tax won't pay for firefighters or put out a single fire. Nor will it do anything to expand the state's fire prevention efforts. The dollars collected will simply fund existing Cal Fire prevention programs. So why the tax? Because during the budget process the fire prevention budget was raided to pay for other services.

Supporters of the fire tax argue that folks who live in fire-prone areas should pay for increased state fire-prevention costs.

Imagine if we funded other state programs this way. Would the Legislature require property owners in high-crime neighborhoods to pay a "crime prevention tax" to fund the state's prisons and public safety programs? After all, these high-crime neighborhoods produce more of the criminals who are in our prisons.

I doubt urban politicians would extend the same logic to other state programs—especially not if it means higher taxes for the areas they represent.

When it comes to the fire tax, there's no relationship between a taxpayer's burden and the benefits he or she will receive.

Even so, the powers that be in the state Capitol are still trying to pretend this new tax is a fee. That's because the Legislature doesn't have constitutional authority to raise taxes without a two-thirds vote. By pretending the fire tax is a fee, the Democratic majority approved it on a simple-majority vote.

In early October, with my full support, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit to halt this illegal money grab. The court proceedings could take a year or longer, but I am confident that the courts will recognize the fundamental unfairness in imposing this tax on rural Californians.

To help inform California taxpayers, I have established a website at http://www.calfirefee.com, providing detailed information about the new fire tax. Visit this site to find out if you live in an SRA and might soon receive a fire tax bill. You can also find further details regarding the process, timeline and grounds for filing an appeal.

California needs a balanced budget, but we should not balance it on the backs of already overtaxed Californians. As an elected taxpayer advocate, it is my duty and privilege to work each and every day to protect taxpayers from unfair and excessive taxation—including this new illegal fire tax.

(George Runner represents the 2nd District on the state Board of Equalization. For more information, visit http://www.boe.ca.gov/Runner.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.