California residents are beginning to receive state bills demanding each property owner pay $150 per habitable dwelling in fire fees.
Locally, fire safe councils, residents and local leaders are working with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association to protest the fee, which they are calling an illegal double taxation.
The State Responsibility Area Fire Fee is intended to fund fire prevention education throughout the state, but, according to Bob Winzenread chairman of the Bishop Fire Safe Council, residents are already providing fire prevention funds through property tax payments.
Those who would like to protest the fee are encouraged to attend a workshop meeting in Big Pine from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 26 at the Big Pine School Library.
“People have to realize that this is very important, they have to pay it or they’ll be charged late fees and (the state) can even put a lien on their property,” said Jackie Billeci, who is organizing the workshop after realizing that she was being taxed twice for fire prevention. “Anybody who looks at their taxes knows they’re already being billed for this.”
Winzenread and Billeci both said the process for protesting the fees is complicated and, if done wrong, could result in the state keeping fees residents pay, even if the SRA fee is overturned in court.
“They did not make this easy,” Billeci said of the appeal process, pointing out that, to go on record opposing the SRA fee, residents will be required to fill out a petition and mail it to the State Board of Equalization, State Board of Fire Prevention and an address specifically designed to receive the petitions.
Residents will also be required to pay the fee within the 30-day deadline. Those who oppose the charge are being asked to write “paid under protest” in the memo line of the checks they send.
“It’s so confusing to the older population,” Billeci. “We’ve got to fight this, it’s wrong.”
After residents pay the fee within the 30-day period, they will receive another bill for another $150, because the bills sent out this month are retroactive, covering last year’s fee.
Winzenread said the fee was initially proposed more than a year ago as a tax, then renamed after the passage of Proposition 13, which requires all taxes be approved by a two-thirds vote of the senate or a vote of the people.
“It’s a change of wording to allow them to get around the law,” he said, adding that he and the Bishop Rural Fire Protection District have a number of other issues with the fee.
Winzenread said that CalFire, which will be administering funds generated by the fee, does not serve areas of the state located within incorporated cities, or fire protection districts. Residents within city limits are not being billed under the SRA, but residents within fire districts are.
He said the Bishop Fire Protection District, as well as most other districts in the county, have a mutual aid agreement with CalFire, which means that if either agency is overwhelmed with an incident, the other will respond to provide back-up.
In his history with the Fire District, Winzenread said local firefighters have provided aid to CalFire a number of times, but CalFire was never called to aid the local department.
Winzenread also said that the fee is charged to property owners, who are billed $150 for each livable structure on their property and it is currently unclear how that will impact areas like Highlands Mobile Home Park, which has one property owner and hundreds of dwellings.
“I’m recommending that people do protest this bill,” Winzenread said. “I really feel like this is wrong. We’re already paying for really good fire protection, it’s almost a slap in the face for the volunteers.”
For more information about the workshop next week, contact Billeci at (760) 938-2255.