We’ve all felt the sting of the downturn in the economy throughout the last several years; smaller paychecks, fewer grants, increased tuition, decreased class availability — the list goes on.
Several months into the debate about the budget, Gov. Jerry Brown is still struggling to make numbers mesh and keep everyone, or at least those he feels matter, happy. Millions of dollars have been cut from each sector receiving government assistance, and with each revision numerous groups and officials are growing increasingly dissatisfied.
But where cuts don’t fill the budgetary gap, taxes take their place. Last month, the state fire board approved a $150 annual fire prevention fee to be applied to yearly property taxes for residents in rural areas, where homes may be at risk. The state fire board has since looked to reduce the fee, decreasing it from $150 to $90 in the unreleased revised version of the proposal. But last Friday Brown proposed raising the fee to $175 per property, with an additional fee of $25 for any other property on that same individually owned piece of land.
The rural fire fee has been used as additional funding for fire protection in areas most likely to be set ablaze. Approximately $50 million was cut from the fire funds in the first revision of the budget and the imposed fee would fill that gap. An estimated 72,600 homes in San Diego County would be affected by the fee, and a whopping 850,000 Californian homeowners will see the fee appear on their property taxes.
Many articles have speculated as to how this extra $175 per “habitable structure” will affect the budget, the fire crews and the residents, but the truth of the matter is, things just don’t add up. Taking a closer look at the first draft of the adopted fire fee — or tax as I see it — the breakdown of how the funds would be spent looks like this: $15 would be sent to the Board of Equalization, Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection; $10 supports the cost of inspections by the department; $5 funds the mapping of Fire Hazard Severity Zones; $15 funds the department’s Pre-fire Engineering program; $20 is charged to habitable structures in “high” or “very high” fire hazard severity zones; $25 goes to the grant program; and finally, properties with more than three dwellings will pay an additional $25 per unit.
Now I know I’m just a college student with two years of collegiate math classes under my belt, but if you add the above numbers (assuming the resident in question is required to pay all of the above) the fee would equal exactly $115. Most homeowners would not be required to pay for all of the above coverage. So Brown, where does $175 fall into place here?
What’s even more ironic than the math discrepancies? The rural fire fee, which is meant to provide additional protection to homes, has been added into the budget to support the General Fund, and money collected from the fee may not be spent on anything fire-related at all.
According to an article in The Sacramento Bee, “Governor Jerry Brown is working with lawmakers on a new version that allows the state to use some of the revenue for firefighting.” If it is a fire protection fee, why wouldn’t it be spent on fire protection? A massive $50 million was cut from the fire services throughout the state resulting in the loss of at least 730 seasonal firefighters and 25 percent engine usage cutbacks. There will also be one less helicopter in use and only 10 fire engines available in the winter versus the usual 20. The collection of the imposed fee, which is supposed to offset the aforementioned budget cuts, would do little for the staffing and engine reductions if the money is put into the General Fund and not set aside for the fire agencies as promised.
So if this fire tax doesn’t already confuse you, riddle me this: How many times must someone pay for the same coverage? Fire department funding is provided through tax dollars paid by California residents, additional fees are paid to private fire agencies by residents living within their districts and homeowners pay extra insurance rates when living in high fire-risk areas.
The rural fire fee would be a second, third or even fourth charge for the same service for some residents within the state. There is some leverage to the multi-fining, but it still doesn’t add up when revisiting where the money goes. Property owners already paying fees to local fire protection agencies may receive a reduction of $25 ($20 less than the previously promised reduction), and structures which have been inspected and found to be “in compliance” in the last four years could get an additional $10 off the bill.
In our current budgetary crisis, it appears similar fees and taxes are popping up at every opportunity and few are doing anything about it. I am not willing to throw in the towel just yet. The governor can be contacted directly and I suggest to voice your opinion if you feel these fees are becoming outrageous. If we just lie down and take it, how far will our overpaid government take this budget?
—Heather Mathis is a journalism