BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
The state is about to begin billing hundreds of thousands of residents living in wildfire prone areas a fee of up to $150 annually per residence for fire prevention efforts.
The new fee, approved by the Legislature last year, isn't welcome by everyone.
The following is a sample of several California counties and the number of residents who will be impacted by the new fire fee:
Kern County - 26,465
Fresno County - 9,845
Ventura County - 8,175
Los Angeles County - 19,016
San Diego County - 100,814
Tulare County - 6,364
Source: Cal Fire
"They're just trying to get our money, one way or another," said Old West Ranch resident Trace Robey.
She said life is already hard enough living in a rural community like hers, and taxes are plenty high without another one to pay. Fire crews have cleared brush in the Old West Ranch community near Tehachapi in the past, and it didn't stop a 2010 blaze from devastating the area, she said.
That fire, called the West fire, destroyed 23 homes and 41 outbuildings, burning a total of 1,658 acres.
"I know it takes money to fight these fires, but what can you do?" Robey said. "Fires happen."
Advance notices of the fees will be sent to residents beginning Aug. 6, according to the California State Board of Equalization. The actual fees will be mailed beginning Aug. 13 in alphabetical order by county, with all the fees issued by December.
Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the state Department of Foresty and Fire Protection, said most property owners will pay $115 per habitable structure because their properties are covered by local fire districts. Only residents living outside those areas will pay the full $150.
Barns, woodsheds and outbuildings are not habitable structures and won't be assessed the fee.
Cal Fire has been hit hard by cuts, with more than $80 million in reductions over the past year and a half, Berlant said.
"What this fee does is create a stable funding source for public safety, specifically so that additional cuts and reductions aren't made in fire prevention," he said.
Berlant said it costs a lot less to prevent a fire than it does to fight one.
But some residents, like Old West Ranch's John Gruber, said they can't prevent a lot of them anyway. Gruber said nothing could have stopped the Canyon fire, sparked by a plane crash in early September 2011.
The crash killed both men aboard, and the resulting blaze burned more than 14,000 acres and destroyed 32 residences, 30 outbuildings and dozens of vehicles.
"They can't prevent these things," Gruber said.
George Runner, a former state senator and a member of the Board of Equalization, said in a recent news release that he's opposed the fee from the beginning because he believes it's unconstitutional. He said he intends to join a lawsuit to halt the fee.
The lawsuit can't be filed until the bills have been sent, Runner says in the news release.
"The purported purpose of this so-called 'fire prevention fee' is to prevent fires, but in truth the millions of dollars collected will be used to fund Cal-Fire's existing bureaucracy rather than expand the state's fire prevention efforts," Runner says in the news release.
Berlant said none of the money collected will go toward new Cal Fire services. It's all being funneled toward fire prevention, he said.