BY TRACIE CONE The Associated Press
SACRAMENTO -- Collection of a fee rural California homeowners pay for firefighting service has been delayed this year after the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said it is sorting through thousands of complaints challenging its billing data.
The $150 annual fee was approved by the Legislature in 2011 to offset the costs of providing fire protection to people who live far from services, including nearly 26,500 in Kern County. It affects more than 825,000 homeowners who were billed for the first time between August and December of last year.
After the bills went out, the state received 87,000 petitions for reconsideration from homeowners who said they were billed erroneously, said spokesman Daniel Berlant.
More than 70 percent of the appeals came from people who argued the fee was an illegal tax, and those appeals were denied, he said. The remaining challenges were from homeowners arguing that their property should not be in a state responsibility area, that they didn't receive the $35 discount for also being in a rural fire district, or that they were charged for more homes than exist.
"It's important for us to review all of the appeals and to settle them prior to starting the next billing cycle," Berlant said.
The delay was championed by former Republican Sen. George Runner, now a member of the state Board of Equalization, who is filing an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit brought against the fee by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
"Ever since the Legislature enacted this illegal tax, it's created one problem after another," Runner said in a written statement.
A spokesman said Runner is concerned because some homeowners in his district in El Dorado Hills received bills erroneously because maps have not been updated to indicate they are now in a subdivision.
Berlant said changes in the maps have to be approved by the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, and that the process is ongoing.