Residents object to new state fire fee


By Joe Tash

Local residents are beginning to receive bills from the state Board of Equalization for a controversial new $150 annual fee that targets homeowners in rural areas of California, resulting in complaints to government and community organizations.

Most of the homes in the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, with the exception of 4S Ranch and part of the Santa Fe Valley, lie within the State Responsibility Area, or SRA, and thus are subject to the new fee, said district Fire Chief Tony Michel.

The district includes Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch and surrounding communities, including the Crosby, Cielo and the Bridges.

Residents of incorporated cities are not covered by the new state fire fee.

Both the district and the county Board of Supervisors have voted to oppose the fee, which was approved by the state Legislature in 2011 and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. In October, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a class-action lawsuit to block the fee on behalf of state residents.

The $150 fee will be charged for each “habitable structure” within the State Responsibility Area, although residents of local fire protection districts such as Rancho Santa Fe will receive a $35 discount, bringing their fee to $115, Michel said.

Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, shares responsibility for fighting wildland fires in the SRA with local fire districts such as Rancho Santa Fe.

County Supervisor Bill Horn, whose district includes Rancho Santa Fe, said he received his bill this week. Horn said he believes the fee was imposed to help the state deal with its spiraling pension costs and budget gap, and amounts to double taxation, because residents already pay for fire protection through their property tax bills.

“They’re out of money, they need more money and they’re taking the money from us. On the street we call that robbery but when the state Legislature approves it there’s not much we can do about it,” Horn said.

Horn, a Valley Center ranch owner, said he’s heard plenty of grumbling about the new fee at his local post office, and from other residents of unincorporated communities in his district.

The supervisor said he would support the county joining in with the Jarvis association lawsuit to fight the fee.

Complaints have also come in to the Rancho Santa Fe Association office, said Association Manager Pete Smith. Over the past 10 days, at least a half-dozen Covenant residents have called about the fee, which Smith said indicates a high level of interest in the community.

Most of the callers do not understand the origin of the fee and believe it was imposed by the local fire protection district, Smith said. His staff has explained that the local fire board opposed the fee, and directed callers to a state website set up to provide information about the fee,

According to the state website, the fee must be used for fire prevention, such as brush clearing and public education. That is another point of contention for opponents, because the fee can’t be used for firefighting equipment or personnel.

The Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District already has a fire prevention bureau that conducts defensible space inspections, education and other activities designed to reduce the risks posed by wildfires, said Michel.

“It’s an unfair tax for citizens of Rancho Santa Fe, because the district is not going to see any benefit from those taxes for the foreseeable future,” said Michel.

An average of 6 percent of the annual property tax bill paid by residents of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District— $600 for a $1 million home — goes to the district to pay for fire protection services, Michel said. In addition, district residents voted in the early 1980s to approve an annual fire protection fee of about $100 per household.

The new state fee is in addition to the other taxes and fees, Michel said.

Some 65,000 properties with dwelling units will be subject to the new state fee in San Diego County, according to a county staff report. (Statewide, about 825,000 properties are subject to the fee.)

“Based on the current estimates of the number of eligible structures it is estimated that roughly $10 million will be collected from the San Diego region, but it is unknown if $10 million will be reinvested back into San Diego for fire prevention efforts,” said the report.

Horn said he plans to pay the fee, and advised county residents to do the same to avoid additional penalties. If the fee is struck down, he said, the state will have to return the fee to residents.