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Rural Californians eager for a promised reprieve from controversial Cal Fire fees imposed six years ago still owe the state more than $53 million before they’re completely off the hook.

It’s uncertain how much of that debt resides in Sonoma County, where about 25,000 property owners have been assessed the disputed State Responsibility Area fee each year since 2012.

But one thing’s clear: Bills levied on Sonoma County households in June and due last month still must be paid, if they haven’t been already, despite recently approved legislation suspending the fees in the future, state officials said.

“They are for the fiscal year prior to July 1, 2017, so they still need to be paid,” Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said. “No new bills for the current fiscal year will be issued.”

It’s been confusing, however, because bills for Sonoma County and nine of the other 58 California counties — those at the end of the list alphabetically — were sent out in mid- to late June, near the close of the 2016-17 fiscal year, according to representatives of the new California Department of Tax and Fee Administration.

The deadline for payment was 30 days later, in July, intersecting with news that the state’s new cap-and-trade bill included language suspending the state fire prevention fee.

The new climate change legislation, Assembly Bill 398, was approved with bipartisan support last month. Provisions include diverting $80 million a year in proceeds from the sale of carbon emission credits to fund the fire prevention efforts currently covered by Cal Fire’s controversial SRA fee.

The fee, approved by the Legislature in 2011, is intended to help offset the state’s cost of defending homes built in rural neighborhoods on the outskirts of urban areas. It is assessed on approximately 800,000 habitable structures that are in the state responsibility area for fire protection, generating approximately $80 million annually.

The fee officially is $152.33 per structure, though most landowners qualify for a discount because they also pay into a local fire protection district. Their annual fee is $117.33.

But many rural residents and political opponents railed against the extra fee. Some have lodged repeated protests, as well.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association has a class-action suit pending against the state, arguing that the fee is an unconstitutional tax that was imposed without a required two-thirds approval of the Legislature.

Retired Rancho Adobe Fire Chief Frank Treanor blames the SRA fee for his district’s unsuccessful attempt at passing a desperately needed special tax in the autumn of 2012 — one that would have allowed him to restore recession-era station closures and service cuts.

“It was a direct result of this illegal tax that they levied on people without a vote of the people,” he said.

He has been advising rural residents since then to pay the fee when they’re billed, but file a formal protest with the state each time, as well.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said thousands have done so, though how many may have withheld payment is unclear.

Venus Stromberg, a spokeswoman for the Department of Tax and Fee Administration, said 172,576 accounts were in arrears at the end of July, owing more than $53 million.

“Just because the fire fee no longer exists,” doesn’t mean the department won’t be collecting, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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