As firefighters bravely fought fires throughout Southern California, many taxpayers were receiving a third round of “Fire Prevention Fee” bills. Given the raging fires, one might think the revenue raised would be used to help pay for hoses, trucks and planes — anything to aid the fire suppression effort.
State Responsibility Area (SRA) Fees:
The tax rate is set by the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection – a requirement of AB 29X, the legislation that created the tax. The rate is adjusted to “reflect the percentage of change in the annual average value of the implicit price deflator for State and Local Government Purchases calculated by the U.S. Department of Commerce.” (CalTax: It appears this is just a complicated way of saying it is adjusted for inflation.)
Under the 2011 law passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Brown not a dime of fire fee revenues can be used for actual fire suppression — trucks, planes or hoses. The funds can only be used for “prevention” efforts, which seem to be few and far between.
With these latest bills, Californians who live in a State Responsibility Area (SRA) have now been forced to pay about $200 million in what I firmly believe are illegal taxes.
Here’s how money is being spent from the fee levied on state residents:
– About $50 million each year is substituting for money that was taken from the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s budget at the height of the recession to help bridge the state’s multi-billion dollar deficit.
– Another $12 million annually is going to the department for programs including inspecting properties and informing homeowners about the need to clear trees, brush and other flammables from around structures, and to map fire hazards.
– About $10 million each year goes to collecting and administering the fee.
– $4.5 million over three years went to the California Conservation Corps for “fire-prevention projects.”
The money is collected from owners of private property within the 31 million rural acres covered by the department, or about one-third of the state.
Protests over paying the fee have subsided from about 108,000 lodged the first year it was collected, to 26,000 last year, and 10,800 so far this year after the final bills went out the first week of June.
Currently, HJTA is working on getting the lawsuit’s class certified by the court in order to ensure all eligible fee payers receive a refund. HJTA is continuing to advise taxpayers to protect their eligibility for a refund by timely filing an appeal (i.e. Petition for redetermination) each year.
As you might expect, the State of California is fighting the lawsuit every step of the way. It seems the state will do everything in its power to keep the lawsuit from moving forward, including using attorneys paid with tax dollars to fight against taxpayers.
On February 5, HJTA called on property owners who are required to pay the fire tax to write or call the office of California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris to persuade her to respond to the merits of the suit challenging the fee as an illegal tax. Though filed in October 2012, the case is not yet in the trial stage, and the state continues challenging the right of some of the named plaintiffs to have standing to file suit.
According to an email posted on firetaxprotest.org, HJTA believes the state’s lawyers are using delay tactics by filing demurrers, objecting to portions of the plaintiffs’ complaint. “While the judge may ultimately rule for either party, tell the Attorney General that hundreds of thousands of rural Californians affected by the fire tax at least deserve to have their day in court,” the email states.
This effort comes on the heels of a January 10 letter to the court by HJTA attorney Timothy Bittle, who described the case as “languishing at the demurrer stage for 10 months while the state has made two collections of the fee that plaintiffs claim is illegal.” After a November hearing on the plaintiffs’ second amended complaint, the court ruled December 13 that one of the state’s demurrers was sustained with leave (for plaintiffs) to amend, and another demurrer was sustained without leave to amend. HJTA subsequently filed a third amended complaint, on January 24. The bill was approved by the state Assembly, 77-0, in May and is now awaiting consideration in the Senate.
No further hearings have been scheduled.
SRA Quick Links
- SRA Parcel Viewer
- Sample Fire Prevention Fee Bill
- Petition for Redetermination
- Petition for Redetermination (En Espanol)
- Board of Equalization
- Contacts, Links and More Information