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Fire-fees plan rolls ahead despite opposition

August 10, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
California's new fire protection fee has comer under fire. A new law means many rural residents will soon pay as much as $150 per year for firefighting services. Some call it a money grab. Opponents have vowed to fight the fee in the courts and at the polls.

The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection says the law is the law until a referendum or a court order stops it, so those invoices could be coming sooner than you think.

Despite questions over its legality, the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection is moving full steam ahead to write regulations surrounding the state's new controversial fire fee.

The fee would be as much as $150 per year, affecting areas where 850,000 mostly rural residents live and are covered by California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) for fire protection. That would mean $50 million for the state budget in the first year and $200 million a year thereafter.

"Whatever you come up with as a fee must be defensible in terms of the services rendered," said George Gentry, executive officer, Board of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Board members have their hands full trying to please several opponents. The law went into effect June 30, when the state budget was signed, but the board has until September 1 to get regulations ready for implementation.

Some residents already pay a fire fee and see this as double taxation and a money grab, which retirees say they can't afford.

"What is that kind of payment structure going to do to their retirement funds?" said Placer County resident Bill Fawx.

"As soon as I read the fact that it was a fee, that just kind of got me upset," said Gilroy resident John Shay.

Leaders from rural communities think the new fee will undermine efforts to raise taxes locally for things the state won't pay for.

"That's going to make them less interested in voting for an increase in assessment or paying more for their local fire department," said Cyndi Hillery, legislative advocate, Regional Council of Rural Counties.

State Senator Ted Gaines (R-Roseville), who is in the process of collecting signatures for a referendum to overturn the fire fee, wants the process to slow down.

"It's an illegal tax," said Gaines. "I think there's going to be litigation in addition to my referendum. So I can't understand why they'd be moving so rapidly to implement the regulation for the tax."

The regulations are expected to be released next week, spelling out which areas have to pay and the dollar amount. There are questions over whether the money can even be used for firefighting because it's slated for fire prevention.


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