Governor Schwarzenegger's proposed fire fee justified

Smoke from hundreds of wildfires that covers much of the state is a dark reminder that while living in California has many benefits, Californians face perennial peril from fires, earthquakes, floods and other calamities.

A state budget that's already awash in red ink will feel new pressures from the outbreak of wildfires, most of them caused by dry lightning strikes on lands already parched by drought. And that brings into focus Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's very modest plan to raise more money for fire protection with fees on property owners.

Schwarzenegger in January proposed a 1.25 percent surcharge on residential and commercial property-insurance premiums to raise a little over $100 million and drew opposition from some Republicans who mistakenly equate service fees with taxes.

Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who is a likely Republican candidate for governor in 2010, joined the opposition, saying that the fee may be illegal because taxes on insurers are already fixed.

"While this may be an effective approach to mitigate the cost of natural disasters, such an approach should be considered collectively with regard to all types of disasters, not just one," Poizner's deputy, David Link, said in a letter.

Poizner has a point. If Schwarzenegger is proposing fees on property owners to offset the cost of fire protection, then by the same token he should be willing to impose fees on property owners who benefit from billions of dollars in state-financed flood-protection work, already a practice of many local flood-control agencies. But the governor's flood-control bonds are financed from the same deficit-ridden general fund and he's refused, in effect, to put the financial burden on those receiving the benefits.

That point aside, the fire-protection fee is a matter of simple equity, especially the modified version that the governor unveiled in May, which would impose a 1.4 percent surcharge on insurance in high fire-hazard zones and a 0.75 percent fee in all others to raise $125 million a year. On property whose owner is paying the average $900 per year, the higher fee would be $12.60 a year and the lower one just $6.75.

California needs the money, not only because of budget deficits, but because the cost of fire protection is skyrocketing as dead trees and other fuels accumulate and more and more Californians live in fire-prone areas.

The Legislature's budget analyst has calculated that the number of acres for which the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is responsible has been declining slowly as cities annex formerly unincorporated communities, but the number of homes on those acres has been rising steadily to more than 850,000. And with mutual aid compacts, federal, state and local firefighters are really one big team when flames threaten.

Simply adding more money to the firefighting budget, as important as that may be, is not the only avenue to increasing protection. Local governments need to get tougher about allowing home building in dangerous areas and in specifying how homes in semirural areas should be built. They need to be more adamant about maintaining fuel-free perimeters.

Politicians should constrain themselves from criticizing insurers when they boost premiums on homes in fire-prone areas. And, if anything, the state should create an even greater differential on those new fees -- assuming they are included in the final state budget -- to more fully require those who insist on living in potential firestorms to pay fairly for the privilege, rather than forcing everyone else to subsidize them.

The legislative analyst says that properties under the direct protection of state firefighters should pay 50 percent of the department's base-line fire protection costs. That makes a lot of sense.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. E-mail him at dwalters@sacbee.com.California needs the money, not only because of budget deficits, but because the cost of fire protection is skyrocketing as dead trees and other fuels accumulate and more and more Californians live in fire-prone areas.