SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - One of California's top elected tax collectors is facing criticism for his high-profile campaign to block a controversial fee that Democratic leaders say he and the state board he serves are responsible for collecting, not opposing.
Republican Board of Equalization member George Runner says the Democratic Legislature and governor engaged in an "illegal money-grab" when they voted last year to charge rural residents whose homes are at risk from wildfires a $150 fee.
Runner has a website encouraging homeowners to appeal the fee. He has written and spoken out against it, and says he will join a planned lawsuit by opponents who argue it is an unconstitutional tax.
"I've opposed this new tax from the beginning, because I believe it is unconstitutional," Runner says on his website. "I intend to join a lawsuit asking the courts to halt this illegal money-grab as soon as possible."
Democrats including state Controller John Chiang, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and fellow Board of Equalization member Betty Yee say Runner, a former state senator who was elected to the BOE in 2010, has gone too far in opposing a lawfully enacted fee he helps administer.
"He has a different role now. His job is to implement the law," said Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
Yee said Runner should simply refer any citizens' complaints to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which will benefit from the projected $84.4 million it is expected to raise.
"He's certainly entitled to his opinion, but trying to corral people into opposing the fee seems a little untoward," she said.
California Common Cause lobbyist Phillip Ung and Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, both said Runner is within his rights as an elected official in opposing the fee.
The five-member Board of Equalization collects the state's sales, fuel, alcohol, and tobacco taxes as well as various fees, including the fire fee. At Runner's urging, the board also mailed notices to property owners in advance of the fire fee billing.
The board began sending out bills a month ago to the first of more than 825,000 property owners. It will help pay for existing fire prevention services. About 95 percent of rural property owners will get a $35 discount because they already pay a local fire protection tax.
Runner said Wednesday that he is appropriately balancing his dual responsibilities by opposing the fee even as he helps collect it. He said he represents 9 million people, and about half the new fire fee bills are going to people in his sprawling district, which covers most of inland California from San Bernardino to the Oregon border.
"I don't know that anyone could point to anything that we have done other than to enhance the responsibilities that the Legislature has given us," he said, referring to his own activities. "We make it real clear: We tell people to pay it. We don't want people to get caught up in penalties and interest."
Runner encourages residents to pay their bills on time and in full. But he also tells property owners how to appeal on several grounds.
There's no question the fee is unpopular, Runner said, even among Democrats such as Assembly Speaker John Perez of Los Angeles. Last month, Perez unsuccessfully proposed ending it in return for closing a $1 billion corporate tax loophole.
The board's chairman, Democrat Jerome Horton, said Runner is free to express his views as an individual board member, but "advocating to individuals to violate the law, it's something I wouldn't do."
Runner and other tax opponents say the fee is actually an illegal tax that should have required a two-thirds vote of the state Legislature rather than the simple majority vote it received. He is also helping the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association line up plaintiffs for the planned lawsuit seeking to overturn the fee, said the group's president, Jon Coupal.
Chiang, who is a member of the Board of Equalization as elected state controller, said in an emailed statement that Runner's "campaign rhetoric is unnecessary and runs afoul of the Constitutional requirement that the BOE treat all statutes passed by the Legislature as lawful unless deemed otherwise by the courts."
Board member Michelle Steel, a Republican, also opposes the fire fee, her spokesman Arie Dana said, though she has not gone as far as Runner to publicize it.
The first bills, about 130,000, went out Aug. 13, giving property owners 30 days to pay. Bills are being sent in alphabetical order by county.
As of Wednesday, 2,793 appeals had been filed.
Nearly two-thirds of those, or about 1,800, were filed in protest that the fee is illegal. Another 11 percent challenged the state's calculation of the number of livable structures on the property; 9 percent disputed ownership of the property; and 7 percent contended the home is not within the state responsibility area covered by the fee.
Runner said he is working with fee administrators to give property owners the option of paying in installments if they can't pay the entire fee. So far, 67 owners have claimed a financial hardship.
CalFire, not the Board of Equalization, will consider the appeals.
With months left to go this fire season, the department already has spent $132 million on the large, out-of-control wildfires that can rage for weeks, said spokeswoman Janet Upton. That is well above the $93 million allotted for such fires in the state budget, and the balance will come out of the state's budget reserve.
"If prevention can prevent even a fraction of these large damaging fires, it's worth the $9.58 that homeowners are paying each month," Upton said.