As the state works to finish new fire regulations that will include an annual fee for property owners in rural areas, opponents are still working on overturning the fee altogether.
According to Cal Fire, the state Board of Equalization will likely start sending out bills for the new fire fee in August. People who own properties with a home in designated “State Responsibility Areas” covered by Cal Fire will pay an annual fee of up to $150 to fund fire protection and prevention.
Property owners would also be charged $25 for every additional structure, and those located within a fire district will receive a $35 discount.
Janet Upton, a Cal Fire spokeswoman, said on Monday that the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection is drafting the permanent regulations. Once finished, the public will have 45 days to officially comment on the regulations before they are implemented.
“They’re anticipating the first bills going out Aug. 7,” Upton said, adding that it would likely take into October to send out almost the 800,000 bills.
At the same time, opposition to the fire fee continues to simmer in Sacramento. Last week, a bill to repeal the fee — AB 1506 — was discussed during a hearing of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
During the hearing, Diane Dillon of the Regional Council of Rural Counties, urged lawmakers to repeal it. The council is an organization of rural counties that advocates on behalf of its 31 members — including Tuolumne and Calaveras counties — on legislative issues.
In her testimony, Dillon said the state would have to spend more than $15 million just to begin collecting the fee. Others opposed to the fee have called it a form of double taxation that will make it tougher for rural fire districts to get their assessments approved.
Paul A. Smith, a legislative analyst for RCRC, said he would be “very, very surprised” to see this bill get out of the committee. The bill is in a “suspense file,” which is a collection of bills that legislators believe will take away revenue in the budget. State estimates have the fee raising up to $84 million.
However, Smith said the fees are not a sure thing, either. State legislators can still repeal them through the budget process in mid-June, and Smith said legal pressures could give lawmakers “enough appetite” to do so.
Multiple parties have threatened lawsuits over the SRA fee, calling it a tax and claiming it violates requirements that the Legislature pass it with a two-thirds majority. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has vowed to sue over the fee once bills are distributed.
Smith said a lawsuit could be filed before bills are distributed. If that happens, it may “drive the conversation” come budget time to reconsider the fee, he said.
“I think there’s a possibility there,” Smith said.