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County supervisors endorse two fire tax relief bills


March 05, 2014
Two bills recently introduced in the state legislature would provide relief from the fire tax imposed on property owners in state responsibility areas, and on Feb. 25 the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to endorse both of them.

The supervisors directed the county's Chief Administrative Officer to draft a letter expressing the supervisors' support for Assembly Bill 1519 and Senate Bill 832 and also directed the Chief Administrative Officer to add to the county's legislative program support for legislation which repeals, reduces, or exempts all or specific properties and areas from payment of the State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee.

"I think this action today would send a message to Sacramento," said Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

"Supervisor Jacob and I feel strongly that the SRA fee is illegal taxation, with no increase in fire protection or fire safety," said Supervisor Bill Horn. "In addition to legislation that repeals the fee, which the Board was already on record supporting, the county will now support any state legislation that repeals, reduces, or exempts people or geographical areas from having to pay the tax."

In 2011 the California state legislature made property with habitable structures and in a firefighting state responsibility area subject to the $150 annual State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee, although the legislature and Governor Brown left implementation of the fee to the Board of Forestry. The assessment affects 56 of California's 58 counties; Sutter County is mostly irrigated agriculture and has no California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection responsibility area while San Francisco County consists entirely of the City of San Francisco and is covered by its city fire department.

CalFire's primary responsibility is wildland fire prevention and suppression, which the state legislature noted in its decision to include areas within local fire districts. Owners of structures which are within the boundaries of a local fire protection agency receive a $35 reduction but must pay the remainder of the tax along with the taxes or benefit fees they pay to the local fire agency.

"It punishes homeowners who are already doing their part to pay for services in our fire-prone backcountry," Jacob said.

The current law imposes a civil penalty for each 30-day period during which the assessment remains unpaid. AB 1519 was introduced by Tim Donnelly, a Republican whose district office is in Hesperia, and would eliminate the penalty for unpaid fees. The assessment is currently being challenged in court by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which is arguing that the fee is actually a tax which requires voter approval. AB 1519 has been assigned to the Assembly's Natural Resources Committee.

Ted Gaines, a Republican with district offices in Redding and El Dorado Hills, introduced SB 832. Initially SB 832 exempted the owner of a structure which has been destroyed or significantly damaged by a natural disaster. On February 14 the bill was amended by the Senate's Natural Resources and Wildlife Committee; the language related to the fire fee was eliminated completely and the bill now would transfer the Kings Beach state park to the North Tahoe Public Utility District.

The Board of Supervisors previously included repeal of the fire tax in its legislative program but had not previously authorized support for legislation which reduces the tax or exempts all or specific populations or areas.

Approximately 74,000 properties in San Diego County are within the state responsibility area.

"I just want to get rid of this tax," Horn said.

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