A Santa Rosa man who mistakenly received several hundred calls from residents frustrated with a new fire prevention fee says the state not only botched its mailers by sending appeals to his personal phone number, but appears to have used a faulty billing list.
George Macauley says he's heard from more than 200 callers, many of them senior citizens, saying they've been charged the $150-a-year fee even though one of their properties is vacant, their house long ago burned down or they live in city limits, for instance.
Many others claim the fee is an illegal tax that should have been subject to voter approval, he said.
"It's a very poorly managed program," Macauley said, "and I've told Mr. (David) Gao (a deputy director with the state Board of Equalization) up in Sacramento: This program should be brought to a screeching halt until you've got your act together."
The phone calls began going to Macauley after the Board of Equalization published correspondence with a number to call to appeal the tax. The BOE omitted the numeral "1" before the toll free 888 area code.
The missing "1" caused some local callers to dial Macauley's cell phone number, which has an 888 prefix. BOE personnel said the agency has never used used a "1" in publications because 888 had not been used as prefix until recently. New mailers have been printed and the agency website corrected, they said.
But with the bills going out at a rate of about 10,000 a day, county-by-county alphabetically, since Aug. 13, Macauley found himself inundated with calls from Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties in recent weeks. Close to 27,000 Sonoma County residents are to be billed some time after Nov. 8.
Macauley, who lives in Santa Rosa and is not subject to the fee, says his experience exposes the fee rollout as "a fiasco" and was very disturbed to know the phone number error would mean citizens on fixed incomes incurred toll charges they shouldn't have to pay.
But state officials say what's illuminated are the challenges and controversial nature of the new assessment, enacted by state lawmakers to fund fire prevention efforts in Cal Fire's State Responsibility Area.
It also highlights the existence of a waiver process built into the system precisely because some mistakes were anticipated, state officials said.
Cal Fire has jurisdiction over about 31 million acres of land for fire prevention and wildfire suppression.
Just under 800,000 residents have been deemed eligible for the fee, aimed at generating about $84 million a year to prevent the kind of wildfires that have cost Cal Fire more than $148 million since July 1, Upton said.
The department had to determine which properties fell within those jurisdictional lines, and whether those who owned the parcels were already paying into a local fire district, entitling them to a $35 discount. Mobile homes and modular units count as "habitable structures" triggering the fee, though who pays it depends on whether the residents own or rent it, said Cal Fire Deputy Director of Communications Janet Upton.
The process required overlays of data from different agencies that virtually guaranteed some duplication, error and outdated information, Upton said. Since the initial billing is retroactive to the 2011-2012 fiscal year, it also needed to reflect ownership as it existed July 1, 2011, further complicating the matter.