Homeowners say fire 'fee' is
really an illegal tax
Published: October 12, 2012
MONTEREY PENINSULA property owners
living in areas where the state is responsible for fire
protection have begun receiving bills for a new
$150-per-structure “fire prevention benefit fee.” But since the
money will go to the state’s general fund instead of the being
set aside for fire prevention, some are calling it an illegal
tax, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has filed a
class action suit on behalf of almost a million California
property owners subject to it.
“This tax was dreamed up by politicians in Sacramento who are
so desperate for revenue that they were willing to ram this
through the Legislature without the proper vote,” said Jon
Coupal, president of the taxpayers association.
According to the bill’s authors, rural property owners “receive
a disproportionately larger benefit from fire prevention
activities than that realized by the state’s citizens
generally,” and that, “the costs of fire prevention activities
aimed at reducing the effects of wildfires in [rural] areas
should be borne by the owners of these structures.”
But, while the governor’s office said the fee will be used for
“brush clearance around communities on public lands, along
roadways and evacuation routes” and to “improve forest health so
the forest can better withstand wildfire,” officials with Cal
Fire, the state’s firefighting agency, told The Pine Cone they
have no idea how much of the money they’ll get or how it will be
“We’re not exactly sure how it will be coming in and exactly
what the criteria would be to expend those funds,” said Cal Fire
Monterey-San Benito Unit Chief Rick Hutchinson. “We were not
involved in the process at all — it was part of the budget
approved last summer.”
Some Monterey County property owners say the “fire prevention benefit fee” is no such thing.
“The fee — or tax — we are being charged by the state does not
enhance fire protection services one iota,” insisted Butch
Kronlund, president of the Coast Property Owners Association.
And longtime Carmel Knolls resident Bob Evans said the fact
that fire officials weren’t involved in assessing the new fee,
which is being billed to property owners via an independent
contractor and is due by the end of October, shows that the
state intends to use the money for other purposes.
“I’ve been hearing from neighbors up and down Carmel Knolls and
across the canyon who are fighting mad about this,” said Evans,
who rallied a group of them to attend a September Cypress Fire
Protection District board meeting where he said board members
and Cal Fire personnel were also befuddled by the new fee.
“Some of these people on fixed incomes are saying this is
ridiculous, because they already pay plenty of property taxes,”
The fee applies to people in “state responsibility areas,”
which are defined as land where the state “is financially
responsible for the prevention and suppression of wildfires.”
They don’t include lands within city boundaries or under federal
ownership, but they do cover properties that also lie within
special fire districts, such as much of unincorporated Carmel,
the Carmel Highlands, Pebble Beach and Carmel Valley.
“A lot of people are going to be caught short on this and not
know what they’re supposed to do about it,” Evans said.
Hutchinson said local Cal Fire officials are waiting to hear from Sacramento how the money will be allocated and what it will cover.
“We haven’t had any direction. Basically, when funds are
released is when we get the direction down in the field. We
really don’t have anything to work with until they come in,” he
said. The state established a call center for property owners to
obtain more information and set up a website,
www.firepreventionfee.org, that includes mapping software so
people can see if they will have to pay. It shows that
homeowners in Jacks Peak, areas south of the City of Carmel and
down the coast, and up Carmel Valley — except along the
river — are subject to the fee.
Meanwhile, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association class action
lawsuit to stop it was filed on behalf of plaintiffs in Kern
County, Mendocino County, Calaveras County, Butte County, San
Bernardino County, Solano County, San Luis Obispo County, El
Dorado County and Lassen County. The association claims the
group represents “a cross-section of the roughly 825,000
property owners subject to the new fee.”
Association lawyers are contending the fee “is really a tax
that needed a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass, but
garnered only a bare majority and therefore never became law.”
They filed the complaint against the California Department of
Forestry and Fire Protection, as well as the State Board of
Equalization, since they are identifying owners of the parcels
subject to the new tax and collecting the money.
Evans, who received his bill last week, said fees not paid by
Oct. 29 will be subjected to penalties and interest, so the
Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is advising property owners
to pay it under protest.
“Jarvis claims we need to pay the bill, write on the check,
‘Paid under protest,’ and mail the protest form to three
different addresses,” he said.
The association established a website showing how to protest
the fee and providing the necessary forms, and property owners
can also sign up for email bulletins to remain informed
regarding the progress of the class action suit. Visit
www.HJTA.org and click on the “Fire Tax Protest” banner.
“If the class action suit is successful, approximately 825,000
homeowners could be eligible for refunds,” according to the