Town Crier readers will have noticed that the State Board of Forestry ruled on Aug. 22 that the Legislature approved fire fee was to be no more than $90, and that various discounts would apply. Residents who pay a local fire district fee would be given a $45 discount, and residents who could show a successful inspection would receive $10 off. (Full disclosure — the law reads that fire safe councils should receive some of the funds raised by the fee.)
This is a complicated situation. The housing boom collapse has caused the state severe budget problems. Gov. Brown, in response, cut CAL FIRE’s budget $200 million, and hoped that most of this cut could be made up by the fee. The principle guiding the fee is “let the beneficiary pay,” and, in this case, the beneficiaries are seen as rural residents who live in high fire areas.
I don’t mind paying more for needed fire protection, but that is not really the issue here, which is whether or not this fee is the way to go about it. Unfortunately, I think not.
First, it is likely this fee will make it harder for local fire districts like Idyllwild to raise their fees when needed. Not many people in Idyllwild will feel like voting for an IFPD fee increase after they have paid this state fee, even given the $45 discount. It will also make it harder for areas to create new fire protection districts, for the same reason.
Second, there is a problem with the interpretation of the “beneficiary pays” principle. While it is true that people who have their homes protected from fire are obvious beneficiaries of fire protection, it is also clear that everyone who lives in the state benefits from the control of wildfires. Aside from the protection of scenic wilderness and parks that are visited by all Californians, the most important resource effect of fire prevention is the protection of key watersheds that are of greatest benefit to those who live in cities.
These problems may not matter, because it is doubtful the fee will ever be implemented. Anti-tax organizations will sue, claiming that the fee is, in fact, a special tax that must pass the Legislature by a two-thirds vote. I think these organizations have hurt California, but I suspect, as a non-lawyer, that they will win on this issue.
A recent case involving a small fire district in Calaveras County (Concerned Citizens v. West Point Fire Protection District) would seem to support the position that a fee like this violates Proposition 218, which calls for fees and special assessments to have specific benefits to the individual parcel. Fire prevention and suppression benefit the entire community (and state, I would argue), and therefore have benefits to others clearly beyond the parcel owner, which Prop 218 prohibits.
The appeals court ruled that a special assessment fee by the fire district (intended to provide 24-hour coverage) was, in fact, a special tax, and, as such, needed two-thirds voter approval (it got 62 percent).
As I said, it’s complicated. Our reactions to the fire fee involve our views of current law, the nature of government service, and the realities of politics and funding. In any case, while this gets worked out in Sacramento, we can keep our focus simple by doing all we can to keep our homes fire safe.