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Possible fire fee reprieve for some EDH residents

By From page A1 | March 13, 2013

More than 1,300 El Dorado Hills parcels currently subject to the state Fire Prevention Fee would be exempt in the 2014 billing according to Cal Fire maps recently posted on the El Dorado Hills Fire Department’s website.

The maps propose transitioning several neighborhoods from state to local responsibility areas effective July 1, 2013.

The proposed map changes are the result of a review by members of Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit in Camino, and address “errors and inconsistencies” in the current maps, according to the Camino Unit Forester and Pre Fire Division Chief Tom Tinsley.

Similar changes have been proposed in a portion of Rancho Murieta and two Cameron Park neighborhoods, and are currently in the approval process at three local fire boards, according to Teri Mizuhara, the information officer for Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit in Camino.

The El Dorado Hills map changes were approved by the EDH Fire Board, but must still pass muster with the Cal Fire Board of Directors and State Natural Resources Agency. Fire officials contacted for this story were optimistic the changes would be adopted.

The $150 fee is assessed annually on habitable structures in State Responsibility Areas, where the state bears ultimate financial responsibility for wildland fire prevention and suppression.

Likewise, parcels in Local Responsibility Areas are the responsibility of the local fire agency and are exempt from the fee.

Despite the omnipresence of the local fire district in El Dorado Hills, roughly half of the parcels within the district’s boundaries are currently within state, rather than local, responsibility areas.

The state acknowledges the role of its local counterparts by discounting the $150 fee to $115 for parcels within a local fire district.

Many local residents nonetheless hit the roof when bills for fiscal year 2011-12 arrived in late 2012. The 2013 bills, scheduled to arrive in April, will likely provoke another round of angst. The proposed map changes do not exempt anyone from the first two billings.

The fee was established by Assembly bill ABx1 29, ostensibly to offset $85 million in budget cuts to Cal Fire, according to Cal Fire Spokesman Dennis Mathison. The bill passed on straight party lines with less than a two-thirds majority, and was signed into law in July 2011.

Cal Fire information officer Daniel Berlant discussed the fee with Village Life in September 2012, and blamed legislative delays and start-up logistics for pushed the initial bill mailing into the fall of 2012.

The fee quickly became fodder for the local Tea Parties, political columnists and critics at large who called it a thinly veiled tax and an attack by the Democratic state government on the largely Republican rural residents.

Local fire officials broke ranks with their brothers in arms and joined in the criticism. El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Dave Roberts predicted that the fee would hinder efforts by cash-strapped rural fire districts to get local approval for assessments or other funding measures to stay afloat.

District 6 Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Rocklin, coauthored unsuccessful legislation to repeal the fee last year.

District 1 State Senator Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, sponsored similarly fated legislation last year, and again in January, then one-upped his wife with SB 125, which would exempt property owners who reside in a local fire district. He followed in February with SB 147, which would exempt property owners with household income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the fee on the grounds that it’s actually a tax and, as such, required a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. El Dorado County signed onto the suit.

If the Jarvis lawsuit is successful, the agency could be forced to refund the $68 million collected as of January 2013

The proposed map changes are independent of Cal Fire’s normal five-year SRA boundary review cycle, and were initiated at the behest of the agency’s Sacramento headquarters as a result of “phone calls and appeals for redetermination” from property owners in the affected areas, according to Mizuhara.

Shortly after taking office, District 1 Supervisor Ron Mikulaco met with Tinsley and Camno Unit Chief Kelly Keenan, who showed him the draft maps. He recalls being upset that the Four Seasons subdivision remained in the SRA, and encouraged the chiefs to expand the review to other areas in his district.

The 2012 bills were due in January. State Board of Equalization Deputy Director David Gau summarized the fire fee billings and collections during the board’s January 2013 meeting:

753,250 bills issued
70,018 appeals filed
$88.3 million total billing
$68 million collected

70,018 appeals filed, of which:
6,338 were granted
41,715 were denied
21,965 were pending review

The funds were originally limited to prevention efforts in SRAs. Recent legislation proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown would allow the state to spend fire prevention fees “in areas that immediately threaten state responsibility areas,” including LRAs, said Mathison.

The January discovery of $3.6 million in Cal Fire legal settlements in a special account instead of the state treasury was a further public relations blow to the agency. The news broke shortly before hearings on the $20 million state Parks Department surplus scandal, and left Cal Fire officials scrambling to defend their fund.

Gov. Brown played down the discovery, but State Finance Department Deputy Director H.D. Palmer told Village Life the State Natural Resources Agency, which oversees Cal Fire, has requested an audit of the settlements, which should be complete by June.

El Dorado Hills Fire Chief Roberts predicted that the El Dorado Hills map changes would be enacted by July 1, in time for the 2013-14 billing.

Parcel owners who feel they were billed in error have 30 days to contest the fee with a “petition for redetermination.” Instructions are available on the El Dorado Hills Fire Department’s website and also at the Jarvis protest site, firetaxprotest.com.

Cal Fire has established a hotline for questions: (888) 310-6447, and a website with information on the fee: FirePreventionFee.org.

EDH villages affected

The proposed SRA maps drop more than 1,300 parcels from the SRA. Most are dense parcels in core residential El Dorado Hills villages. West of El Dorado Hills, the following villages are affected:

Francisco Oaks
Crown Valley
Promontory Villages 1 through 5 (north of the SMUD power lines)
Governor’s West
Parkview Heights

Adjacent villages remain in the State Responsibility Area, and will not be exempt from the Fire Prevention Fee:

Mormon Island Park
Promontory Village 6 (south of the SMUD power lines)
Crescent Ridge
Crescent Hills
La Cresta
Ridgeview Village Estates

Oakridge Village, located immediately west of the high school, may also get bumped out of the SRA, joining neighboring Stonegate, St. Andrews, Oak Tree, Franciscan, Fairchild and Timberline Ridge Villages in the LRA.

The proposed maps also transitions Serrano Village J4, roughly 100 parcels located south of Serrano Parkway on and around Beckett Drive, into the LRA.

The Hollow Oaks neighborhood, another 100 homes located east of Bass Lake Road and south of Bridlewood Canyon, is also slated to join its neighbors in the LRA.

Maps of the affected areas, before and after the proposed changes can be found  on VillageLife.com and EDHfire.com.

Mike Roberts


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