Homeowners in the unincorporated areas of Santa Cruz County began to receive bills last week for a controversial statewide fire protection fee aimed at stabilizing revenue for Cal Fire, the state’s wildland fire protection agency.
The California State Board of Equalization administers the fee that charges homeowners within a designated “state responsibility area” between $115 and $150 per habitable building.
Residents whose property is within the boundaries of a local fire district qualify for the lower of the two rates, and those whose property is with the limits of an incorporated city — such as Scotts Valley — are exempt from the fee.
Some 24,000 Santa Cruz County homeowners were notified that they would be subject to the fee in October. Since then, it has been widely criticized by local government and fire officials, as well as statewide watchdog organizations, many of whom claim that the fee is a tax increase in disguise that diverts resources away from local firefighting districts.
One organization, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, filed a class-action lawsuit against the Board of Equalization on Oct. 3 challenging the fee.
The association claims the fee is an illegally enacted tax increase that violates state law enacted by Proposition 13.
According to Prop. 13, state tax increases require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. Fees, however, require a 50 percent plus-one vote. The fire protection fee, passed as Assembly Bill x129 in 2011, was voted into law with a simple majority.
“When (Gov. Jerry Brown) signed this into law … he said it was of dubious legality,” said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Sacramento-based Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Foundation during a phone interview on Monday. “(The Legislature) had just a majority vote, so they called it a fee.”
Vosburgh said homeowners would not see any additional service or fire protection. Rather, he said, the money collected by the fee would “backfill” the state’s coffers.
“If you’re a homeowner, there’s no specific value (added) to your property,” he said. “Folks are going to be paying this charge, but they’re not going to be receiving any benefits that they aren’t already receiving from the state of California.”
As of press time Wednesday, Nov. 28, there had been no hearing date set for the case. However, Vosburgh said the lawsuit does not mean homeowners should delay paying the fee, because interest and other penalties would be charged for payments made more than 30 days after bills are sent.
He urged homeowners to pay the fee, but also to protest the fee by filing a petition for redetermination.
“We’re urging people to file the protest,” Vosburgh said, adding the lawsuit seeks refunds for those who had filed such a petition.
Dennis Mathisen, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said Tuesday by phone that while the agency is aware of the pending lawsuit, Cal Fire had not been formally served court summons.
“We are awaiting further information,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re continuing to move forward with implementing the law.”