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State senator seeks to overturn Calif. fire-protection fee

July 21, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
A state senator is pushing to stop extra fees homeowners are paying in CAL FIRE zones. Under a new law, rural residents are required to pay an additional $150 for fire protection.

Even though there are some legal questions over whether a law that's part of the state budget can be put through the referendum process, opponents of the fire fee filed paperwork to proceed.

The state of California provides fire protection through the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), covering 31 million acres of land, mostly in rural areas. That's one-third of the state.

To help pay for that service, 850,000 residents will be billed $150 per year under a new law Governor Jerry Brown signed this month, pushed through with only Democratic support.

That has prompted outrage in some communities like Rancho Murieta, outside Sacramento, where residents already pay an extra fire fee.

"No, I don't want to pay double taxes. We're taxed enough for everything," said Paula Galvez-Fox, who opposes the fire fee.

"I just think it's just another way to 'fee' us to death so that they can cover all the expenses," said Letitia Sexton, another person who opposes the fire fee.

"You wouldn't believe the phone calls I got coming into my office," said state Senator Ted Gaines (R-Roseville), who just filed a referendum with the state that would ask voters to overturn the new fire fee, which he says is really a tax.

Gaines thinks property taxes already cover basic services.

"Clearly, it's illegal in my mind. Clearly, it's unfair," said Gaines. "They are already paying taxes for these services and there's no excuse to go after rural homeowners again."

But with the current up-and-down economy, CAL FIRE says it can't do its job with constant budget cuts, especially when developers keep building in wildfire territory.

The fire fee would bring in $200 million per year for the agency.

"It would detrimental to us to lose that much of our fire-protection funding," said Janet Upton, CAL FIRE deputy director of communications.

While higher taxes are unpopular, some residents understand why they're necessary.

"Everyone wants fire protection. We have to pay for it. We want police protection, you've got to pay for it. So I don't have a problem with an extra $150," said Brenda Davis, who supports the fee.

When lawmakers come back from summer break, they'll try to tweak the law to exclude residents who already pay a local fire fee. But that's not good enough for Senator Gaines. He'll proceed with trying to get a half-million signature to qualify for the June ballot.

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