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State board approves higher rural fire fee

November 10, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
A state firefighting board has approved raising the annual wildfire protection fee for 850,000 California property owners. The new fee was pushed by Governor Jerry Brown to raise $50 million in new state revenue. The governor denies stacking the board with his appointees to get the result he wanted.

The California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, packed with Governor Jerry Brown's new appointees, voted to increase California's new, yet controversial fire fee on nearly a million rural residents, even before homeowners got their first bill.

The fire fee is now $150 a year. With exemptions, most will pay $115. That's significantly higher than the one approved in August, which was $90 a year, but with exemptions, many would have only paid $25.

"The legislature and the original budget act and the governor's signing measures indicated it's a $150 fee for fire-prevention activities," said Ken Pimlott, director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

But the old board did a lot of research on rural firefighting, and even held hearings. It determined $90 a year was more appropriate to protect the 31 million acres under Cal Fire's watch.

That amount, though, did not quite balance the state budget, which counted on $50 million from this fire fee.

So the new board, without much public notice, approved the higher fee.

Some on the state Board of Equalization, which will be mailing out the bills, criticized the move.

"The fact is, you went through a public process. You went through a hearing. You went through all this to determine what was the right thing to do. You came out with a number and that wasn't acceptable," said George Runner, a member of the Board of Equalization.

The governor was asked three times whether he purposely stacked the fire board to get his original $150 fire fee approved, but didn't answer the question.

Rural residents are frustrated because many already pay a fee to their local fire district for fire prevention and protection.

"I'm retired, and I have a fixed income and every $50 or $100 is hurting me," said Bill Ossolinski, a rural California resident.

The bills are scheduled to be mailed out early next year. But a legal challenge could be possible because some say this fee is really a tax.

A lawsuit, though, can't be filed until the first rural resident receives his bill.

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