Bills for as much as $150 per “habitable structure” could be arriving in rural homeowners’ mailboxes as early as next week with a second such bill to come early next year.
The controversial annual fee approved last year by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown is designed to provide funding for Cal Fire wildland fire prevention and protection.
It has drawn heavy criticism from rural residents and their elected representatives as “double taxation,” seeing as most already pay a property tax assessment to local fire protection districts.
Taxpayer advocate groups argue it constitutes a tax that should have required a two-thirds vote by the Legislature rather than a simple majority.
Area legislators Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, and Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, each attempted to repeal the legislation to no avail.
George Gentry, executive director for the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, said he expects lawsuits to be filed challenging the fee as soon as the first bills are received.
They were initially to be sent out Monday, but Gentry said technical difficulties will delay that by one week.
Most recipients will get a bill for just $115, he said, reflecting a $35 “discount” for those who live in fire protection districts.
The bills that will start to go out in August will take weeks to reach 826,477 addresses submitted to the state Board of Equalization and are a “catch-up” for the 2011-2012 fiscal year that ended in June. The 2012-2013 notices will start to go out sometime after Jan. 1 and should occur annually at about that time in the future, Gentry said.
Gentry said the money collected is slated for inspections, enforcement of defensible space provisions and the like. He added that any funds in excess of what Cal Fire needs to perform those duties may be returned to local communities in the form of grants for fuel reduction and fire break projects by entities such as the Calaveras Fire Safe Council and the Highway 108 Fire Safe Council in Tuolumne County.
Jerry Tannhauser, of the Highway 108 Fire Safe Council, said he has heard little if anything positive about the fees’ implementation from local residents. Tannhauser said he had not yet heard of the possibility of grants available through the new fee but would be interested in applying if they come to fruition.
“We can always use more money for fuel reduction to protect communities,” he said.
The bills could cause a headache for county governments, which are sending out regular property tax assessments at about the same time.
“I assume there will be some confusion,” said Tuolumne County Assessor-Recorder Ken Caetano.
As Caetano and representatives of the Calaveras County Assessor’s Office each noted, the bills are coming from the state and will not be handled in any way by county staff. Caetano added that state agencies sought no input from county authorities on where “habitable buildings,” which excludes barns and other outbuildings, are located.
“We’re not sure where they got the list of properties. None of the assessors I’ve talked to have been contacted ... for their data,” he said. “We kept waiting for the request to come. It never did.”
If there are inaccuracies in the bills or other questions, county assessors and tax collectors are anticipating phone calls.
“I’m sure that’s going to generate some phone calls that we cannot avoid other than to say we sympathize and refer them to the state,” Caetano said.
Caetano said he believes the bills will be mailed in alphabetical order by county, so residents in Alpine, Amador and Calaveras counties will receive them weeks before those in Tuolumne County.