TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — A new fee which shifts the cost of Calfire's wildland prevention services from the state to rural property owners is stoking tempers locally and across California.
Starting this summer, homeowners living within designated “State Responsibility Areas” will be billed $115 to $150 annually per habitable structure, for a total collection between $85 million to $89 million per year. Once the fee is in place, the state of California will reduce its Calfire funding by a similar amount.
Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's office led the charge to implement the fees, after state analysts determined recent increases in the number of homes in rural areas increases the cost of fighting wildland fires, officials said.
Since the fee was introduced as a state budget trailer bill for fiscal year 2011-12, it has been a sore spot with rural agencies across California. Local leaders have argued the fee is not only applied unfairly to rural residents — pointing out it is just as difficult to fight a wildfire barreling toward a small town like Tahoe City as it is to battle a blaze heading toward San Diego — but it unjustly impacts the ability of local fire districts to raise money.
“I'm not going to say anything that supports this fee,” said Rui Cunha, assistant director of emergency services for Placer County. “Our board of supervisors has come out strongly against it as bad public policy.”
Critics such as Cunha say the fees will erode community support of local fire district bonds.
“Money collected in Placer County will not stay in Placer County,” Cunha said. “And the money raised by the fee will not be put toward increased services.”
Calfire Spokesperson Daniel Berlant agreed, saying homeowners would not see increased services — but he emphasized the value lies elsewhere.
“Bottom line is that these fees create a stable funding source for public safety,” Berlant said. “Our budget is funded out of the state's general fund. When the economy is down, this is one of the areas reductions occur.”
According to the Placer County Supervisors office, the fee could impact some 800,000 property owners and 31 million acres across the state. While the fee per habitable structure is $150, areas served by local agencies such as the North Tahoe Fire Protection District will receive a $35 discount.
Peter Poe, acting chief of North Tahoe Fire, said he is awaiting a scheduled briefing with Calfire officials, and has not yet made a public comment on the fees.
“Anytime you are going to charge a fee, you are punishing people. This fee is punishing the wrong people. We are not the ones starting fires,” said Cunha, adding that another problem is a significant portion of the fee would go toward administration.
However, according to Calfire's accounting, only $9 million of the estimated $85 million to $89 million will be used to pay administration fees in the first year, Berlant said.
“And that number will drop to $6 million over the next two years,” he said. “Most of the administration costs will go to the call center and after a few years, when people get used to seeing the bill, that admin cost will go down.”
Calfire expects to field 250,000 calls the first year bills are sent out, Berlant said.
Property owners within the town of Truckee will not be accessed fire fees, as residents are not inside a designated SRA. The town has maintained its own contract with Calfire for wildland prevention and suppression services since it incorporated in 1993. In 2011-12, the contract covered a total of 8,095 acres surrounding town, at a cost of $20.18 per acre. The contract is Calfire's largest.