Tuolumne County property owners should be ready early next month to receive their bills for a new statewide fire protection fee on rural properties.
And local government is reminding taxpayers to pay attention, especially with recent reports of double billing by the state.
According to the office of George Runner, who represents the Central Sierra Nevada region on the state Board of Equalization, bills for the State Responsibility Area fee will begin heading to Tuolumne County on Dec. 5.
As the bills are sent out alphabetically by county name, local residents will be some of the last in the state to get them.
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, which will be reflected on the statement. Properties in incorporated cities, like Sonora, will not pay.
As of Nov. 9, 572,752 of the 825,000 bills had been mailed out, with almost $31 million in revenue received, according to the Board of Equalization.
Once property owners receive the bills, they will have 30 days to pay in full or set up payment plans before late fees and interest are charged. However, reports of erroneous and superfluous billing in other counties has led to about 1 percent of the bills being formally protested.
A message has been posted on the Tuolumne County website with information on how to formally appeal the fee, which is an option for property owners who have been billed in error.
Grounds for an appeal include the structure not being located in a State Responsibility Area, a different person owned the property in June 2011 and the structure on the property is commercial.
The fee is controversial, especially in counties with large amounts of unincorporated land. 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.
Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Jarvis organization, said no hearings or court dates had been set in the case as of Tuesday. However, Vosburgh said they suggest people pay the fee as well as file for a redetermination to avoid penalties and interest.
Vosburgh advised people to write "paid under protest" on the check when protesting the fee.
"It will be rejected, but the reason for filing is to establish a legal foundation if we prevail in the courts … for getting a refund," he said. "We expect to prevail. But the wheels of justice grind slowly."
State officials have said the billing problems are due mostly to data gathering. Cal Fire is using a private contractor, Designated Fee Administrator, to compile the list of properties and structures.
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.
For suspected Cal Fire billing errors for the SRA fire fee, call 888-310-6447, or visit firepreventionfee.org to download the petition for redetermination for payment.
People can fill out the petition and send it in lieu or the second or incorrect bill within the 30-day deadline. However, property owners who don't pay bills that were sent properly face a 20 percent penalty after the 30 days are up, according to Cal Fire.
People who cannot pay legitimate bills can work out payment plans by calling 800- 400-7115.
Contact Chris Caskey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4527.