As bills for the new rural fire protection fee began arriving in Calaveras County homeowners' mailboxes, a challenge to the unpopular $150 bill is brewing thanks to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
The fee will fund vital fire prevention services including brush clearance and activities to improve forest health so the forest can better withstand wildfire, according to the state's website for the fee at www.firepreventionfee.org. The HJTA, a political organization that sponsored the landmark Proposition 13 property tax revolt in 1978, has opposed the fee from its beginnings, calling it an illegal tax that should have been subject to a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature.
A party-line vote sent the bill to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk, where it was signed into law. Mother Lode representatives, including Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, and Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, opposed it.
"The fire tax is in direct violation of Prop. 13, and it represents an additional burden on rural homeowners who are already suffering in this economy," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "This new tax ... represents the worst of Sacramento - taking more money from hardworking people for a program they were already paying for, to cover the politicians' budget gap."
The Calaveras County Taxpayers Association is supportive of the HJTA's efforts, said President Al Segalla.
"The mailing of these tax bills comes at a bad time for Calaveras County property owners because of the need to support our existing fire services through legitimate funding," Segalla said.
The $150 bill is reduced to $115 for homeowners who live in local fire protection districts but the $35 discount is not enough to satisfy those who believe they should not be subject to a bill at all.
The HJTA has set up a website at www.firetaxprotest.org to notify owners of more than 800,000 structures subject to the fee how to claim a refund if a lawsuit the organization says it will file in coming weeks is eventually successful.
"Bills are due 30 days from the date printed on the bill. The payment must be postmarked by the due date to avoid penalty and interest charges. The bill contains instructions about how and where to pay," said State Board of Equalization spokesman Yating Campbell. "If the taxpayer believes the fee is not due, they may submit a petition to Cal Fire after they receive the bill from BOE. The petition must be submitted within 30 days from the date printed on the bill."
HJTA Legal Affairs Director Tim Bittle said the refund process is not simple.
"The Legislature, in my opinion, has made it particularly hard for people who have to pay this fee to get their money back," Bittle said. "They've added all these extra hoops you have to jump through, I think just so the state can keep a hold of as much money collected as possible even if they lose in court."
Bittle advises homeowners to pay the bill or else they risk a 20 percent penalty plus interest.
"The filing of a petition does not prevent accrual of penalties or interest. Taxpayers are advised to pay the fees while Cal Fire considers the petition," Campbell said. "Payment is not an acknowledgment that the fees are due and does not, in any way, affect consideration of the petition."
Bittle recommends writing "under protest" on the memo line of the check when paying the fee.
A petition for redetermination should be mailed to the Board of Equalization as well as two additional Cal Fire addresses posted at the website, he said, to qualify for a refund should the fee be overturned.
The HJTA is simply waiting to have "a diverse cross-section of plaintiffs" representing a wide variety of land types and uses before filing its suit, Bittle said.
The Board of Equalization is sending out bills in alphabetical order of the counties, making Alpine, Amador and Calaveras counties' homeowners some of the first to get the bills.
A lawsuit to overturn the fee could be rendered unnecessary if legislation now in the Senate passes. That proposal ties the fee's repeal to a bill that would increase corporate taxes to provide tuition breaks to middle-class students at public universities in California.