SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY — Residents in nearly 30,000 households in rural parts of San Luis Obispo County will receive bills for $115 later this year for fire protection as the result of a bill passed in Sacramento in 2011.
There are 29,849 such “habitable structures” in the county. Bills are being sent to 825,488 homes statewide. Most are being billed $150, but owners of habitable structures within the boundaries of local fire protection agencies get a $35 discount. All of SLO County is within such a district, as the county has its own fire department, said SLO County-Cal Fire deputy chief Rick Swan.
Households in “state responsibility areas” will be billed. These are areas where Cal Fire is in charge of fire protection, although there are some areas of the county that won’t be billed despite being served by Cal Fire. Areas served by municipal fire departments — such as Atascadero, Templeton, Paso Robles and Santa Margarita — won’t be billed. But Creston homeowners will be billed, as will those in Carrisa Plains, Garden Farms, Heritage Ranch, and rural areas surrounding the cities.
But some areas, notably the Jardine Road area east of Paso Robles and the town proper of Shandon, will not be assessed the fee.
“An SRA is where the state is financially responsible for fire prevention and suppression,” Swan said. “It’s not a city boundary or a Forest Service boundary. It’s typically rural, outside of the incorporated areas. It kind of gets to the point of, how many homes per acre are on that piece of land? It moderates between two and three and five. Or is it productive land? If it’s in crops, especially green crops, it’s typically not SRA.”
But Swan said the reason Shandon isn’t in an SRA is because it has an urban reserve area and an organized boundary, while Creston, by comparison, doesn’t have an organized boundary or an urban reserve line.
A tool to determine whether a house lies in a state responsibility area and is subject to the new fee is available at www.bof.fire.ca.gov/sra_viewer.
The fee is as a result of ABX1 29, which passed in 2011. Both local representatives, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo) and Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), voted against the bill.
“The fee unfairly targets homeowners and landowners in rural communities who already pay taxes for fire protection,” Achadjian said. “In other words, this is a double taxation.”
The fee is levied per habitable structure, which is defined as a building that can be occupied for residential use. Houses, mobile homes and condominiums all count.
Swan said the fee is to be used for fire prevention rather than firefighting.
“What we would be doing is our vegetation management program, where we would brush back stuff along some of hour hazard areas, and probably inspections and those sort of things,” he said.
The state will begin to send out bills this month, progressing alphabetically by county, which would imply that SLO County would be closer to the end of the year.
The legislation states that the annual fire prevention fee shall be due and payable 30 days from the date of assessment. Failure to pay would result in a penalty of 20 percent of the fee added for each 30-day period past the due date.
There is also an appeals process.
But the new fee faces challenges. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association announced in November its intent to sue the state if it attempts to collect the fee, saying that the fee qualifies as a tax under Proposition 13 and thus required a two-thirds vote in the legislature. The bill got the two-thirds majority in the Assembly but not in the Senate.
“The new tax conjured up by Gov. Brown creates an undue hardship on California homeowners who are already struggling to pay their mortgages,” HJTA President Jon Coupal said in a statement. “Homeowners and taxpayers in California have had enough of the state budget shell games. The fire tax is illegal, and if implemented, we will fight to have it overturned.”
The HJTA said in the statement that it has to wait until the state starts to collect the fee so the group’s lawyers can represent as plaintiffs those who must pay, but that the group already has hundreds of homeowners who have volunteered to act as plaintiffs as soon as they receive the tax bill.
Achadjian also said the state was using this as a money grab.
“What the state did is took the money that should have gone for firefighting and rerouted it for other expenses, and created this new tax to fill in that gap,” he said. “So the firefighters won’t even benefit from this.”
Achadjian owns property in rural Arroyo Grande that is subject to the new fee, although he said it was purchased after the bill was passed.
The state has set up a website at www.firepreventionfee.org for more information on the new fee, including how to appeal.
For the complete article see the 08-03-2012 issue.
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