Commentary: Fire fee endangers California's fire-protection system

Issue Date: March 7, 2012
By James E. Little
The long-standing strategy for protecting California wildlands from fire may be jeopardized by new fees on landowners within State Responsibility Areas.
Photo/Kate Campbell
James E. Little

At the end of the 2011 budget session, the California Legislature adopted legislation which, among other items, directed the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection to adopt emergency regulations implementing a Fire Prevention Fee on structures within State Responsibility Areas. This bill was adopted in the final days of the budget session, without benefit of legislative hearings or public comment.

As required by the legislation, the board adopted emergency regulations last August. At its November meeting, after the governor's appointment of four new members, the board voted to amend the proposed regulations to increase the fee to the maximum allowed, $150 per habitable structure. The amended regulations included a single deduction of $35 for those structures that were within the boundaries of a local fire protection agency.

Unfortunately, the Legislature does not have a complete understanding about how emergency services are provided in California. This is especially true in the rural areas that are primarily designated SRA. There is a very distorted view in Sacramento regarding the relationship between CalFire and local emergency service providers. What understanding the Legislature does have appears to be derived from reports prepared by CalFire and the Legislative Analyst's Office.

The numbers reported and used by LAO are totally misleading and do not reflect the actual responses by CalFire. In Mendocino County, for example, CalFire has contracted to provide 911 emergency dispatching for all but two fire agencies. As a normal practice, each incident is given a CalFire number, even if CalFire's only action is to dispatch the responsible local agency.

On a statewide basis, the LAO has identified as significant the number of medical aids that CalFire reportedly responds to. But only a small percentage of the incidents include an actual response by CalFire personnel. These responses are almost exclusively handled by local agencies with only a very minor response by CalFire.

In addition, the numbers also seem to include incidents in areas where local agencies have contracted with CalFire to provide emergency services. In these cases, CalFire is paid by the local agency to provide the service. Because these responses are covered by local contracts, they should not be used to calculate any fiscal impact to the state as it relates to development in the SRA.

The recently enacted SRA fee is clearly a reaction to the misrepresented numbers and a lack of understanding on the part of the Legislature. The rapidly expanding CalFire budget is the result of several factors; responding to incidents outside its primary mission does not appear to be a significant factor.

At the heart of the matter, however, is the significant adverse impact the SRA fee will have on local agencies' ability to raise operational funds. Local agencies such as fire districts are very limited in their options for raising funds for operations.

Most districts receive a small portion of property taxes. More significant are the benefit assessments or special fire taxes that have been implemented in individual districts.

Voters who will soon be paying an SRA fee in addition to a special fire tax will not be inclined to vote in the affirmative for a tax increase. In essence, the state, by establishing the SRA fee, has capped the future income for fire districts.

It is not difficult to imagine that the SRA fee will increase over time. It is also not hard to imagine that local emergency service providers will be squeezed between rising costs and diminishing revenues.

Furthermore, the Legislature has failed to recognize the defined responsibilities for fire protection as codified in California statue. The Health and Safety Code states that "the State has recognized that fire protection among other services is best provided at the local level." The board's 2010 Strategic Fire Plan says, "State, local and federal agencies each have a unique responsibility for wildland fire protection. The delivery of wildland fire protection services in California relies on an integrated, multi-agency effort to maximize the use of firefighting resources."

This fee, unfortunately, puts at risk this long-standing strategy for protecting California wildlands. The SRA fee will have a significant, long-term, adverse impact on the state's multifaceted fire-protection system. The potential costs to local fire agencies will far exceed the anticipated revenue received by the state. The resources available to respond to the state's frequent major events will likely be less, not more. Rural communities that rely on their local fire departments will see an increase in fire-protection costs while they receive a reduced level of service.

The SRA fee was promoted on faulty data and a complete lack of understanding as to how the state's fire-protection system works. The net result will be that California wildlands will be at significantly greater risk.

(James E. Little serves as chief of the Long Valley Fire Protection District in Laytonville.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.