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.
Forestville Fire District Chief Dan Northern said residents in his area pay a $115 district parcel tax and many will pay another $115 for the discounted state fee.
And he worries that local fire agencies will find it harder to get support for their own tax increases from voters paying a state fee. Last year, Forestville area voters boosted their tax from $40 to $115, he said.
Volunteer fire companies that depend largely on community fund-raisers for support will be hurt if donations fall by as little as $1,000 due to the state fee, Aston said.
"It's a big deal," he said of the fee's potential impact.
A state fire fee, repeatedly proposed in Sacramento over the last 20 years, re-emerged this year and was authorized in a budget-related bill approved by the Legislature in June.
In September, lawmakers rebuffed the governor's proposal for a $175 fee, and Brown subsequently appointed four new members, all Democrats, to the state Board of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The nine-member board approved the $150 fee on a 6-2 vote on Nov. 9, two days after releasing the plan to the public.
"Clearly, it wasn't the most transparent" action, said Paul A. Smith of the Regional Council of Rural Counties, which opposes the fee.
Cal Fire will get $50 million of the fee revenue, with the remaining $30 million going to a special fund that will cover administrative expenses related to the fee and other programs, said Paul Berlant, a Cal Fire spokesman.
Cal Fire took a $70 million budget cut this year, prompting a reduction from four to three crew members on state fire engines.
"We made sure our folks knew they were going to have to do the same job with fewer people," Berlant said. Fire incident commanders can still call in added resources, if needed, he said.