State errs in billing homeowners for fire fees

Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

As the state continues to send out bills for a new fire fee, some rural property owners are getting something they didn't expect - a second bill.

Errors in the record gathering process have led to thousands of property owners mistakenly getting double billed for the State Responsibility Area fire fee. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the state Board of Equalization have mailed approximately 320,000 of the 825,000 bills so far for the fee, which is being implemented as part of new Cal Fire regulations.

About 1 percent so far are being protested due to error, according to Cal Fire. Most of the double bills were sent to residents in mobile and manufactured homes, said Janet Upton, Cal Fire spokeswoman.

"This is the first time this process has been undertaken," Upton said. "We expected to have to do some fine tuning, which we're doing. We are diligently working on correcting, so it does not happen in the future."

The new fee charges property owners living in State Responsibility Areas $150 per year for each inhabitable structure on the property. The fee is supposed to go toward fire protection and fire prevention services in the SRAs, which are unincorporated areas of the state covered by Cal Fire firefighters.

Properties lying within a fire district will receive a $35 discount.

The fee is controversial, especially in counties with large amounts of unincorporated land, like Calaveras and Tuolumne counties. It has survived attempts by state legislators to repeal it, although the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association recently filed a lawsuit to overturn the fee that alleges it is actually a tax that was passed illegally.

The state is sending out the bills alphabetically, county by county. Calaveras County property owners have already received the bills, and Tuolumne County residents should get them in December.

Calaveras County Assessor Leslie Davis said her office received several calls from property owners who received bills. Some of them were questions about the double billing, while others were just general questions about the bills themselves.

"We were certainly getting phone calls," Davis said. "The state did this all up in Sacramento, and they didn't contact any of us."

Upton said the problems can be traced mostly to data gathering. Cal Fire is using a private contractor, Designated Fee Administrator, to compile the list of properties and structures. She said the company relied on multiple sources of data, like records from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, local assessment records, GIS data and more.

Because mobile homes and manufactured homes are registered with multiple agencies, there were a number of "overlapping data sets" that led to the double bills, she said.

The issue was "drawn to our attention early in the process," Upton said, adding some of the issues should be worked out by the later counties and by the next round of billing in the spring.

Upton said people who are billed in error or double billed should quickly file an appeal. She said recipients do not have to pay and will not be penalized if they appeal an erroneous bill within 30 days.

Upton also said people who cannot pay legitimate bills can work out payment plans by calling (800) 400-7115.

Manufactured and mobile home owners are not alone in getting the bogus bills.

George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization, one of two state tax-collection agencies, said some people are getting bills for structures that never existed or were taken down before the billing cycle.

Runner said the state Legislature didn't consider how complicated the billing would be when pushing through the bill.

Lawmakers created the program without any effective record keeping process or registry, he said.

He also said it's "very rare" to divide responsibilities for such a fee or tax between multiple agencies, like Cal Fire, Board of Equalization and a private contractor.

"It was done quickly by the Legislature without much input from even agencies like the Board of Equalization, who have a history of dealing with the taxpayers," he said. "I think there's a lot of work to be done on this issue."

Contact Chris Caskey at ccaskey@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4527.

11882354
The Union Democrat
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