Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

When Ian Owens opened up his bill for the new statewide fire fee last week, he saw an unpleasant surprise.

The Cascade Mobile Home Park resident was against the new fee in the first place, and the enclosed letter informed him that he missed the deadline for the first payment and was being charged penalties and interest. The problem is, he said, he never got the first notification.

"No one got it," said Owens, who added he's talked to about 20 neighbors in the same situation.

Many of the residents in the Sonora-area mobile home park didn't get their bills in December for the $115 fire fee likely because the state didn't put the space numbers on the bill addresses.

The penalty and interest amounts to about $12 for the second notice. But he pointed to language on the bill threatening stricter punishments, like collection and tax liens.

"Everybody finally got, 'You're late. They're now hitting them with 10 percent plus interest," Owens said on Tuesday.

Owens and others say they are being asked to pay increased fees because of someone else's mistake. They are pointing to this as an example of the state mishandling a new fee that is controversial among Mother Lode property owners and questioning how many others are unknowingly in the same situation.

"A lot of people (getting the bills) are on a fixed income, that's a hardship," said Doug Murphy, who also lives in the mobile home park and is opposed to the fee.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the state Board of Equalization have mailed approximately 825,000 bills as part of the first round of the new fees. The fee charges property owners living in State Responsibility Areas $150 per year for each inhabitable structure on the property. Properties lying within a fire district, like the Cascade Mobile Home Park, receive a $35 discount.

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.

Opponents are contesting the fee in court, saying the state is illegally imposing a tax without following the proper legislative procedure.

Dennis Mathison, spokesman for Cal Fire, said property owners who believe there is an error with their bills can call a customer service line at (888) 310-6447 or call the state Board of Equalization at (800) 400-7115.

This isn't the first error in the billing process. Late last year, Cal Fire representatives said a glitch in the assessment process caused many residents in mobile home parks to get double-billed. Mathison said the issue facing Cascade residents has not been a common issue so far, and he said the agency is looking into it. In this instance and others where a particular community has multiple billing problems, they will try and fix the problems.

"We take those case by case and we troubleshoot," he said. "We try and figure out what happened and fix the data."

But Owens is livid about what he says is a tax that is already burdening property owners, many of whom are having a hard time paying their bills. Then to charge them extra and threaten further penalties for something that isn't their fault, Owens said, is tantamount to stealing.

"The state of California has said 'We're going to make a money demand on you. We don't care if it's unfair. You're gonna pay it, and if you don't, this is what we're going to do to you,' " he said. "It's frighteningly threatening."