Tucked into a much-debated state bill that would renew California’s cap-and-trade program to cut greenhouse gas emissions is an unheralded provision that may come as good news to tens of thousands of rural North Coast residents.
If passed, it would eliminate a hotly contested wildfire prevention fee paid by rural homeowners for the past five years, amounting to more than $318 million statewide.
The proposed repeal is a product of high-stakes negotiations aimed at shoring up support for the cap-and-trade program, a central pillar of Gov. Jerry Brown’s climate change agenda. Floor votes are expected Monday in both the Senate and Assembly amid significant political rancor.
Though dwarfed by the larger issues framing debate in Sacramento, the fee repeal in Assembly Bill 398 — the Global Warming Solutions Act — is a welcome move for fee opponents, including many legislators representing rural Northern California.
“This has been a controversial initiative since it’s inception,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.
The State Responsibility Area, or SRA fee, adopted in 2011 and imposed a year later, was meant to annually offset $80 million diverted away from Cal Fire, the state firefighting and forestry agency, as state lawmakers confronted a gaping recession-era budget deficit.
The now-$152.33-a-year fee is assessed on approximately 800,000 properties statewide with habitable structures located in Cal Fire’s jurisdiction. That includes 25,655 parcels in Sonoma County, state officials said.
Most affected landowners — roughly 95 percent — pay a reduced annual fee of $117.33, qualifying for a $35 discount because they also pay into a local firefighting district, Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said.
In enacting the fee, lawmakers argued that growing residential development in rural areas has raised the cost and difficulty of battling wildfires, with state prevention efforts disproportionately benefiting property owners there.
But the fees have drawn outrage from rural residents who believe they’ve been unfairly burdened for the costs of services that benefit all Californians and which forces most to pay double duty, for both state and local firefighting agencies.
McGuire said owners of the more than 96,000 assessed parcels in his district, which runs from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, haven’t seen nearly the benefit they should from the millions of dollars they have put in.
“I’ll be the first to compliment Cal Fire for their fantastic work, but Cal Fire serves urban, suburban and rural California counties, and the bulk of the SRA fire fee has been put on the backs of rural property owners,” he said.
Local fire departments also argue that the state fee hampers efforts to raise funds necessary for volunteer and rural agencies.
“A lot of local fire districts, small fire districts, they get tremendous support from their communities — or at least they did,” said Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg. “When the SRA fee was brought on, they lost a lot of that, and so their ability to support things like equipment and training, that became much more difficult.”
If approved, AB 398, authored by Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, would kill the SRA fee and fund about $80 million a year in rural wildfire prevention efforts through proceeds from the sale of emission credits that businesses and other entities can buy and sell at auction.