By Inga Barks
A couple weeks ago my best friend and I took a drive up to Kernville for the annual Sierra Art and Craft Fair. I highly recommend it. The drive from our valley floor isn't far, the weather is a tad cooler (and if it isn't, the river feels great), and all the food and antique stores you want are a lazy walk in any direction from the center of town.
One can see why people move to the Kern River Valley. It's a stone's throw from the "big city," with a beautiful drive in between. And other than the bustle of tourists, it's a pretty quiet and relaxed life...until the new tax from the state comes.
I'm sorry, did I call it a tax? I meant to say "fee." It's a "FEE." A $150 annual "fee" that is hitting the mailboxes of rural homes allllllll over Kern County in communities such as Kernville, Glennville, Woody, Wofford Heights, Onyx, Lake Isabella, Bodfish, Frazier Park, Fellows and McKittrick. This tax...excuse me, "fee," is to pay for putting out wildfires in some of these unincorporated areas. However, there are some problems with this "fee," in both logic and (some would say) law.
Let's start with the terminology. Lawmakers love to use terms like "revenue enhancements," "toll" and "fee," but let's face it: If you are paying the government your hard-earned money in exchange for a service, it's a tax. Trash hauling, tax. Police and fire, tax. Public education, tax. So when does a tax become a fee? When our dishonest, overspending, money-grubbing politicians want to raise your taxes but can't get the votes.
See, Proposition 13 requires that any tax increase get a super-majority vote in the legislature. Problem is, Republican votes are needed and those are hard to come by. So, the Democrats simply changed the term from a "fire tax" to a "fire fee" and passed it with a simple majority vote. So you're paying more for a current service. It just won't be called a tax. See how that works? According to some critics like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, it's not legal. But since when did the law ever stop lawmakers from breaking it?
Now, this additional fire "fee" only applies to certain communities in Kern County and around the state. It affects about 800,000 residents. How does the state justify raising taxes...fees...on Frazier Park and not Bakersfield? Because according to the state, Frazier Park is more likely to have wildfires. Therefore, Frazier Park should pay more to put them out!
Makes sense, right? On the other hand, to quote George Runner, former state senator and current member of the Board of Equalization, whose job it is to collect the "fee" but is leading the charge against it, "By this logic, why not raise taxes in inner cities to fund the greater volume of police presence needed?"
He's right. Whether it's through property taxes or locally assessed fees, we ALL already pay for local services. Charging certain people more just because of where they live, and for a service they may never use, is punitive and discriminatory!
And another thing: The fire fee for our foresty friends in, say Glennville or Bodfish, is a $150 annual charge for every "inhabitable dwelling" on their property. So if you have one house that's $150. If you have a house and a motor home, or a detached garage where a cot might fit, guess what? $150+$150+$150.
Finally, to add insult to injury, this tax won't go to fund any new fire services. It won't even grow the budget for Cal Fire. According to Runner, this tax, which seeks to raise more than $80 million in "revenue enhancements," goes to pay back money that lawmakers took from Cal Fire to pay for their other unfunded pet programs! That's right. You're being taxed to repay money taken from a program for which you have already paid a tax.
Though the fee does have to be paid, there is a process to challenge it and I hope you will. To find out if you're in one of the affected areas, there's a map at the Howard Jarvis website, www.HJTA.org. There, you can also learn how to challenge the "fee."
As for the rest of us who aren't being taxed but stand in solidarity with those of you who are, I hope we will all do something very important in November: If our guy voted for taxes or wasteful spending this year, let's vote for the other guy.
-- Inga Barks, who hosts a talk show on KMJ AM 580, is one of three community columnists whose work appears here every Saturday. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. These are Barks' opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Next week: Ric Llewellyn.