The arrival of Fire Prevention Fee notices last week from no less a tax collector than the California Board of Equalization angered many tax-averse property owners in rural areas around the state. It also irked El Dorado Hills residents, about half of whom are subject to the fee.
Local property owners argue that they already pay their local fire district for fire prevention services, and their affluent exurb has little in common with the forests and rangelands the fee was apparently created to protect.
“It’s deplorable,” said El Dorado Hills resident Evelyn Weick. “How does this happen without us knowing about it? We don’t know who’s getting the money or how it’s going to be spent.”
The typical fee in El Dorado Hills is $115 annually, but can be more if the parcel contains multiple homes or is not within an existing fire district. The current bill covers July 2011 through June 2012. Parcel owners will receive another bill in February 2013, for 2012-13.
The fee only applies to parcels in State Responsibility Areas where the state is responsible for fire prevention and suppression, as opposed to Local Responsibility Areas where a local fire agency has that responsibility. Despite the omnipresence of the El Dorado Hills Fire District, roughly half the parcels in El Dorado Hills are within a SRA.
The SRA/LRA boundaries are updated every five years by the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Board of Directors.
The department, which goes by the informal moniker Cal Fire, bills itself as the largest full-service all-risk fire department in the western United States with more year-round fire stations than the cities of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago combined. The Cal Fire mandate includes vast forest and rangeland management responsibilities, in addition to prevention and suppression of forest fires.
Public Resources Code section 4210 explains that the presence of structures in a SRA increases fire risk. The fee directs that extra cost to owners of those structures.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant offered another rationale, explaining the fee as an attempt to protect Cal Fire’s prevention funding from Sacramento’s budget-cut shell game.
Local opponents of the fee, notably including El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts, contend that creating a separate funding source for prevention ensures that current state funding for prevention will be cut in the future.
In an Aug. 21 news release Roberts recounts his agency’s opposition to the fee when the governor first proposed it, and argues that the agency providing fire prevention and protection in El Dorado Hills is EDH Fire, not Cal Fire, and that residents already pay taxes for those services. As such, the fee constitutes a duplicate tax, “without providing additional fire services,” he said.
Furthermore, Roberts contends, the fee jeopardizes the Master Mutual Aid System, which the chief called “a model of collaboration for the rest of the nation.”
El Dorado County’s rural fire agencies currently face budget shortfalls that threaten their existence. Homeowners in the Pioneer Fire Protection District approved a ballot measure in 2011, taxing themselves $85 per year to keep their district afloat.
As an undisguised tax increase, Pioneer’s Measure F required a two-thirds majority and achieved it with room to spare.
Roberts argues that tax-weary residents are much less likely to approve any such taxes or similarly aimed fees or assessments in the future, “on top of the SRA fee charged by the state.”
When rural districts reduce staffing and shutter stations the “model of collaboration” Roberts refers to can quickly break down, he said, explaining that the cross-boundary mutual aid chess game of move ups, coverage and “auto-aid” (closest resource) responses that Cal Fire’s Camino Command Center operates will require more of El Dorado Hills Fire, keeping firefighters out of district longer and more often, which increases response times and risk in El Dorado Hills.
The state fee can only be spent in SRAs and only on “fire prevention activities,” according to Public Resource Code Section 4137 and 4214, which lists activities like education, fuel reduction, investigation, civil cost recovery, forest law enforcement, pre-fire planning, risk analysis and education, volunteer programs, defensible space inspections, hazard mapping and implementation of the State Fire Plan.
The pertinent code sections were added by Assembly Bill X1 29, which was approved by the legislature in June 2011 with all the Democrats in favor and all Republicans in full, vocal opposition.
Unlike Pioneer’s Measure F, the prevention fee didn’t require a public vote. Public hearings were held in San Diego and Redding, but not Sacramento.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association contends the fee is an illegal tax under Proposition 13 and has promised to challenge it in court.
Because of the county’s strong mutual- and auto-aid policies, most residents care more about their PTA and the NRA than whether they lived in an SRA or LRA.
Many El Dorado Hills residents now question the SRA boundaries.
The LRA in El Dorado Hills forms a meandering north-south urban core, very loosely bounded by El Dorado Hills Boulevard, Serrano Parkway, Francisco Drive and Lakehills Drive, leaving thousands of suburban parcels in fully developed neighborhoods under tight homeowner association control designated as within the SRA.
The state code defines the characteristics of a SRA as any of these conditions:
(a) Lands covered wholly or in part by forests or trees producing or capable of producing forest products.
(b) Lands covered wholly or in part by timber, brush, undergrowth, or grass that protects the soil from erosion or excessive runoff, if the water is available for irrigation or domestic use.
(c) Range lands contiguous to either of the above.
The vast majority of parcels in El Dorado Hills are suburban in nature, often with strict landscape controls. They aren’t forests, tree farms or grazing land and haven’t been for many years. And because most of the building is relatively recent, the threat from structures is greatly reduced.
Ironic examples abound: Despite the wood and water in its name, the Lake Forest Apartment complex is neither (a) forest, (b) lake or (c) range land, although some weekend wildlife has been reported on the parcel, which is strictly SRA.
The most upscale sections of Serrano, the “street of dreams” parcels surrounding the golf course, are SRA, as are the most of the less-opulent subdivisions north of Serrano Parkway. An equal number of parcels in similar neighborhoods south of the parkway are LRA.
Other examples of SRA neighborhoods include Sterlingshire, Highland View, Highland Village, all the neighborhoods south of Green Valley road and east of either Francisco Boulevard or El Dorado Hills Boulevard. The Oak Ridge neighborhood, smack in the middle of El Dorado Hills, is considered SRA, perhaps because some of its parcels adjoin the ridge, which isn’t exactly range land, but is open space.
Cal Fire officials contacted for this story pointed to section 4128 of the Pubic Resources Code as the rationale for seemingly arbitrary SRA boundaries. The section allows recognizable landmarks, including “pipelines or streams,” to be used as “arbitrary boundaries” — a provision that might be needed on actual timber or grazing land where few permanent landmarks are present.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Kaslin conceded, “They had to put the boundaries somewhere.”
The question of how those suburban neighborhoods became state responsibility remains unanswered at press time.
The Regional Council of Rural Counties questioned the veracity of Cal Fire’s database of properties and owners subject to the fee, distancing themselves from the process with a statement that counties had no role in compiling the names or addresses.
Assemblymen Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, and Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, have taken another approach, introducing Assembly Bill 1506, which would repeal the fee.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is governed by a nine-member board, two of whom are El Dorado County residents — Biologist Susan Britting of Coloma and Forester Richard Wade of Pollock Pines, a Sierra Pacific district manager.
Parcel owners who believe they were billed in error can contest the bill by filing a “petition for redetermination,” but must do so within 30 days, and should include supporting documentation. Importantly, they should pay the fee.
Cal Fire has established a hotline for questions: (888) 310-6447, and a website with information on the fee: FirePreventionFee.org.