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Was fee collected for rural fire suppression misused?

February 22, 2013

State officials are investigating the use of fees collected by CalFire last fall, with some claiming the money was used for programs it was not intended to fund, such as prosecution of accused arsonists. Governor Jerry Brown is asking the Legislature to revise the use for the money, while opponents of the fee sue the agency in hopes of having it repealed. Photo by Stan Conger

Less than a year after implementing an unpopular fee for rural fire suppression, state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials are taking heat for misusing those funds.
CalFire is being accused of using the fees to prosecute arson suspects and seek restitution. More than $3.6 million in wildfire settlement money has been placed in an account kept by the California District Attorney’s Association.
Much of that money has also been used to purchase equipment for CalFire, including radio scanners and digital cameras.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation in July granting authority to levy a $150 fee on property owners for every habitable structure to help the state’s fire agency battle wildfires under an “emergency situation.”
“I know that there have been some lawsuits filed on this, but we haven’t heard anything official about changes” to the fee coming from the Legislature, said Bishop Fire Chief and Bishop Rural Fire Commissioner Ray Seguine.
According to the 2010 Census, there are more than 800,000 residential units and structures in California’s State Responsibility Areas that could be subject to the CalFire fee.
Local fire chiefs and other opponents across the state have described the fee as double taxation, since property owners already pay for firefighting services from CalFire with property taxes. Some residents are also paying for rural fire districts’ service through their property tax.
Shortly after the fee was levied last fall, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit against CalFire on behalf of rural residents of the state.
Now, state officials are taking a close look at the funds that were collected in the first round of fees, and how that money was used.
The fee is also going back to the Legislature, as Gov. Brown has proposed expanding its uses.
As revenue from the new fee on rural property owners comes in, the state fire department is using a portion of it to pay for 24 employees who collect damages from those who start wildland fires. Brown has proposed using $3.7 million from the fees to fund that program permanently, but the legality of that move also is being challenged.
The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Counsel concluded that using the rural property fee to investigate and prosecute those who start wildfires violates the state constitution because there is no direct benefit to the property owners paying it.
Republican lawmakers have introduced at least five bills to repeal or restrict the new fee.
Meanwhile, Brown’s office wants the Legislature to also amend the property fee so the money collected can be used for fire-prevention efforts in areas that border the regions where the fee is assessed.
That bill would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and officially turn the fee into a tax.
Its opponents argue in their court filings that it actually is a tax that required a two-thirds vote by the Legislature in the first place.

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