Sonoma County rural residents decry state fire fee

  • Craig Harrison, president of the Bennett Valley Community Association pays $170 a year parcel tax to support the Bennett Valley Fire Department. Harrison is against an additional $150 fire fee sought by Governor Jerry Brown to raise $50 million to offset state firefighting costs.

Sonoma County rural residents and fire chiefs, along with some state lawmakers, are protesting a new fire fee intended to raise an estimated $80 million statewide.

Approved last week by an obscure state board, the fee sought by Gov. Jerry Brown will cost rural homeowners $150 a year, with a $35 discount for those who pay an assessment to a local fire district.

The state Board of Equalization will issue bills for the fee next year, no later than July 1.

"It seems like double taxation," said Craig Harrison, president of the Bennett Valley Community Association. "One more tax disguised as a user fee coming down the pike."

Harrison pays $170 a year to the Bennett Valley Fire Department, one of 17 fire districts supported by parcel taxes in Sonoma County.

"Why am I paying for it again?" he said.

In Sonoma County, the fee applies to about 32,000 homes in the 800,000-acre rural area — 80 percent of the county — where Cal Fire provides fire protection.

Statewide, it applies to more than 840,000 homes on 31 million acres known as state responsibility area.

Cal Fire, a state agency, and local fire departments have a "shared mission" in responding to fires, Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Aston said. Local agencies are typically first on the scene, but rely on Cal Fire's vast resources for support, he said.

Aston and other local fire officials are concerned that the state fee will jeopardize support for their departments.

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