Though the deadline just passed for Santa Barbara County residents to pay a controversial state fee for wildfire prevention services, the next round of notices will arrive in April or May, a CalFire spokesperson said last week.
The bills for $150 with 30-day deadlines were sent mid-November to 14,000 of the county’s “habitable structures” in what’s called the State Responsibility Area (SRA) — privately owned forest, watershed, and rangeland outside city and federal boundaries — and the revenue will backfill CalFire’s coffers since, with the passing of the 2011-2012 budget, it no longer receives money for fire prevention from the state’s General Fund. The fees are expected to generate around $85 million annually and will pay for existing CalFire programs, like inspections, removing brush, creating fire breaks, and keeping evacuation routes clear.
No one has argued that the work isn’t needed, but many have been rankled and confused by how the SRA fees were implemented, why certain zones are or aren’t included in the SRA, what constitutes a “habitable structure,” and so on. And the news that a fresh round of bills is on the way so soon after the last ones were paid — information not yet disseminated by CalFire or the Board of Equalization (BOE), which does the actual collecting — will likely solidify frustrations, some of which were voiced during a Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meeting on December 11.
After a presentation by CalFire Unit Chief Robert Lewin and County Fire Chief Michael Dyer, 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr — explaining that 60 percent of her constituents live on unincorporated county land and noting that her office has been flooded with calls about the fees — wondered about the seemingly “capricious nature of who gets charged.” Why, she asked, if two people live right near each other — often in relatively urban areas — is one sometimes assessed a fee and the other isn’t? And why aren’t commercial buildings charged? “It’s the great inconsistency that has got people really upset about this,” she said. Plus, she went on, many people didn’t realize November’s bills paid for last year’s work, that they were “paying for a dead horse.”
Lewin explained that the current SRA map — which outlines 31 million acres of coverage statewide with 673,000 in Santa Barbara — was originally designed for fire protection, not billing. “There are issues with the map,” he admitted, noting it was last reviewed in 2010 and, based on regulations established in 1991, will be looked at again in 2015 on a granular level, meaning parcel by parcel. To have the map updated before 2015 would require a change in the legislation, he said. But, he went on, “I don’t doubt it will get better over time.” (View the map with an address look-up feature at firepreventionfee.org.)
Lewin said that if residents think their homes have been unfairly included in the SRA, they can petition CalFire to opt out of the fees. And residents living on incorporated county land or in the Summerland/Carpinteria and Montecito fire protection districts get a $35 discount, he said. Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray said that while she thought the opt-out option was good in theory, the amount of paperwork and time needed to complete the request was overwhelmingly daunting. According to BOE member George Runner’s website, CalFire has rejected 85 percent of the petitions so far. And, as of December 21, he said, 27 percent of all bills are past due. Of the strange timing of the first two billing cycles, CalFire spokesperson Dennis Mathisen told The Santa Barbara Independent there were delays getting the first notices sent out and that the fees will be levied in the spring from now on.
The supervisors took pains to emphasize that their grievances are not against CalFire itself, but with Sacramento for pushing through a new law with, as 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino put it, such “haphazard implementation. … If local fire agencies were involved in the beginning, instead of this political shell game, things would have gone a lot better,” he said. The Montecito Fire Protection District has officially come out against the SRA fee.
Lavagnino wondered if the county might consider joining a lawsuit, nearing class-action status, filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) in Sacramento this December. The suit alleges that the fees are actually an illegal property tax under Prop. 13 because the State Legislature approved the charge with less than two-thirds majority. The group’s website notes that late payments mean a 20-percent penalty, plus interest, and that every 30 days of nonpayment triggers another 20-percent penalty, plus interest. “The fee is a lien on your property, and failure to pay can result in foreclosure,” the statement reads. Near the same time as the legal filing, State Senator Ted Gaines (R-Rocklin) introduced legislation that would repeal the new law.
Of potentially participating in the HJTA lawsuit, Santa Barbara County Counsel Dennis Marshall said the option hasn’t been researched yet. He said his colleagues in different counties have been reticent to join and are slowly assessing if and how to proceed. “We’re all in a holding pattern,” he said. The county, he explained, could join in a class-action capacity, jump on board at the appeal level, or band with other counties to file a separate suit. Agreeing that the timing is too premature to seriously consider such a move, the supervisors opted to draft a letter to Sacramento with its concerns, have a closed session meeting for a report on the HJTA litigation, and get direction and updates from the supervisors’ legislative committee.
While county staff hammer out the letter, which will be brought back to the board for final approval, some Santa Barbara residents are quietly — and happily — paying their SRA fees. “I feel like Alice falling down a rabbit hole into a world that does not make any sense,” said Mission Canyon resident Alastair Winn in an email. “We all live in a high fire zone, need special services to protect our property, and then get sticker shock when we realize we have to pay for it.” Laurie Guitteau, also in Mission Canyon, echoed similar thoughts: “I may be tarred and feathered for saying this, but I think it is only fair that we pay a bit more since we require more protection. My only concern is that the fee actually go for fire services.”