Plaintiffs contesting the 2011 State Regulation Area Fire Fee convinced a Sacramento Superior Court judge that their case merited treatment as a class action. However, if their argument ultimately prevails, refunds may be limited to members who have officially appealed their payment with Cal Fire.

On July 19, Judge Eugene Balonon dismissed the state’s contention that the case does not qualify as a class action filing. In his ruling, Balonon stated that there was enough reason to believe that a class of taxpayers exists.

The judge rejected the state’s arguments regarding four specific plaintiffs and allowed the litigation to move forward. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has brought the suit on behalf of various individuals and argued that it was for the whole class of fire fee taxpayers.

The issue is likely to be challenged again in the future when the HJTA requests certification of the class, according to Timothy Brittle, HJTA attorney.

However, with respect to the future award of refunds, if HJTA arguments prevail, Judge Balonon limited the class eligible for refunds. He relied specifically on the fee legislation, which states that “the administrative remedy to contest the validity of the fire prevention fee” is “to petition for a redetermination of whether the fee applies to that person.”

Consequently, he ruled that several plaintiffs did not exhaust those administrative remedies prior to joining a suit for a refund. “AB 29 is clear that a person challenging the fee must file a Petition for Redetermination and not a Claim for Refund,” Balonon ruled.

These plaintiffs may not automatically receive a refund, but they may still be part of other aspects of the suit.

They also may file for the redetermination for this year’s fee. As July 29, the state has received more than 105,000 petitions for redetermination of the fee assessment, according to Janet Upton, deputy director of communications for Cal Fire.

“However, over 70 percent of those appeals had no statutory basis on which they could be granted — for example, claiming, ‘it’s a tax, I’m not paying’,” she continued. “We were able to grant approximately 15,000 appeals for reasons allowed under the law, such as number of qualifying structures, as an example.”

However, Bittle argues that if the fee is found to be illegal, he believes the refund process should be inapplicable as well. “Both the fee and process were all stuffed in the same envelope — AB 29,” Bittle said.

Assembly Bill 29, enacted in July 2011, imposed a $150 fee on all structures within the State Regulated Areas. The fee is to be used to defray fire prevention costs in high-fire areas. Properties within local fire districts, such as Idyllwild Fire Protection District, receive a $35 reduction in the fee, for a total of $115 annually.