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In a move many fire officials say penalizes rural fire districts and the people they serve, the state is about to begin billing more than 825,000 residents a new $150-a-year fee for Cal Fire services.

The fee is part of a year-old legislative move to offset $80 million in Cal Fire revenue cuts over the past 18 months, shifting some of the burden for wildfire suppression onto those who live in wildland areas and creating a more stable funding source.

Lawmakers say residential development in rural areas raises the cost and difficulty of battling wildfires and means people who live in those zones benefit disproportionately from taxes paid for state fire suppression.

But critics, including the Sonoma and Marin county fire chiefs associations, say the fee unfairly penalizes those who already pay rural fire protection district fees, even though they qualify for a $35 discount.

Opponents also argue that the fee is a tax that requires two-thirds voter approval.

And they point out that while the state fee is based on the cost of fighting fires, the proceeds are earmarked for prevention efforts such as brush clearance, forest health and defensible space around structures.

"This is an additional tax for fire services that doesn't support the day-to-day operations of the fire districts," Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Aston said. "It's not coming back to help Cal Fire staff more fire stations or keep Cal Fire staffed up during winter time."

The investment is needed, state officials said, to inhibit costly fires and make them less expensive to fight.

"This fee is essential so we can continue to provide the needed fire prevention services to help prevent our state's largest and most damaging wildfires," Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. He noted the cost to taxpayers for fighting wildfires was an estimated $131 million for the fiscal year that ended in July.

<NO1><NO>The state Board of Equalization will begin sending out more than a half-million advance fee notices starting today. In Sonoma County, the owners of 26,697 homes are affected. Mendocino County has 17,867; Lake County has 15,841.

The bills will start going out county by county in alphabetical order beginning next week, a process expected to extend into December, Board of Equalization personnel said.

An estimated 95 percent of those affected qualify for a $35 discount, "so most registrants will only receive a bill for $115 dollars," Cal Fire spokesman Berlant said.

The total effort is expected to raise about $84 million in the first round for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. The collection was delayed by policy decisions and administrative actions needed to put the legislature's plan into practice, Berlant said.

Collection for the 2012 fiscal year should begin early next year, with billing eventually catching up so the bills go out at the start of each calendar year, he said.

For Rancho Adobe Fire District Chief Frank Treanor, whose fire crews cover Cotati, Penngrove and rural Petaluma, the timing is challenging.

After paring his spending because of declining property tax revenue, the district still closed the fiscal year $277,000 in the hole, Treanor said.

Under his urging, the district board just approved a November ballot measure asking voters to approve a $60-a-year parcel tax for the next eight years.

That would be in addition to a special tax unchanged for 20 years that costs the average homeowner $40 a year for fire service.

The proceeds would go to replace decades-old firefighting equipment at an estimated cost of $1.2 million and to cover continuing deficits during these tough fiscal times, Treanor said.

But voters just billed for Cal Fire services may not understand that none of that goes to Rancho Adobe, he said.

"It's really bad business, and it's especially bad business for me, because it makes it very difficult for me to manage the assets here, with boots on the ground, and to manage the fire services and medical services to people in the districts," he said.

Others argue that the State Responsibility Area Fee, which was approved in concept by the legislature and established at the maximum $150 allowed by a vote of the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, is in fact a tax, thus requiring voter approval.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association has begun collecting names of those who want to challenge the fee in court — a process that requires first that they pay the bill, then request a refund and, if denied, file suit, association attorney Tim Bittle said.

"We have lots and lots of people who want to be represented in refund claims," Bittle said.

A letter drafted to represent opposition to the fee by associations representing the Sonoma and Marin fire chiefs echoed concerns about the failure of lawmakers to seek voter approval.

"What justification is there that the state levies a tax, yet the local fire department shoulders the day-to-day cost of providing the service?" the chiefs said.

George Gentry, executive officer of the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, said state officials are aware of opposition and anticipates multiple lawsuits.

"The board," Gentry said, "has been getting a lot of &‘input,' shall we say, on the SRA rules. So we know there's a lot of consternation."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.