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Get ready for surcharge on your homeowners insurance policy

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POSTED February 22, 2010 12:57 a.m.

If you live in Manteca, you pay property taxes to support the Manteca Fire Department.

That is true whether you own or rent since the landlord passes the costs onto the tenants.

You also have fire insurance.

The California Legislature today is starting work on a budget plan that includes taking advantage of the fact you carry fire insurance so they can pay for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection expenses.

They are planning an insurance surcharge on residential and commercial insurance policies to help underwrite state firefighting costs. It is expected to cost the average homeowner $12 a year.

The CDF – better known as Cal Fire – plays a crucial role in fighting the devastating wild land fires that hit California every year.
It is hard to object to the surcharge – at least on the surface.

Such a surcharge will generate at least $264,000 off Manteca homes alone. Toss in surcharges on commercial and industrial insurance policies and the amount collected within Manteca’s city limits could easily exceed $350,000.

This year’s state budget had $27 million slashed from Cal Fire. Overall, the Cal Fire base budget and emergency fund has gone from $307 million in 1998-99 to $967 million in the current year.

Good and responsible government would address the root of the problem. Cal Fire’s costs have tripled in 10 years. Instead of simply throwing money at the problem, why not start solving the reason why costs are escalating?

A wild land fire can strike anywhere. But the big damages are in places like the Los Angeles Basin, Malibu, the Sierra, and the foothills when urbanization patterns continually increase the risk of major disasters.

The real question should be why someone the San Joaquin Valley – clearly the poorest region in California – has to subsidize fire protection for people in $10 million homes in Malibu or those who can either afford stunning home sites in rugged locations or simply opt to live in harm’s way.

Manteca is not Malibu. The odds of Cal Fire responding to a major fire here are close to zilch. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t share in the burden of supporting Cal Fire and responses in major emergencies. We are all Californians.

The real issue is whether the state could continue tolerating urbanization in areas with high fuel potential whether it is in thick forests or steep canyons.

There is little doubt the increased cost in Cal Fire’s budget has everything to do with protecting structures.

They are structures that either should never have been built where they are or else were rebuilt after a previous wild fire destroyed them.

In a way, people in such areas will pay more than an average Manteca homeowner when it comes to the insurance surcharge as their rates reflect the odds of being hit with a fire. Even so, it would seem more equitable if those in high wild fire threat areas had a higher insurance surcharge than someone in Fresno.

At the same time, the state should stop the creation of disasters waiting to happen.

Consider the now stalled Del Puerto Canyon project above Patterson.

The steep hillsides are tinder dry in the summer and are whipped by dry winds. Now when there are fires they simply wipe out dry grass and imperil a handful of structures. Build cities on such step terrains and you will have all of the ideal ingredients for a major fire disaster.

Simply stopping construction in such areas may not work. That’s why the state should level a realistic tax – perhaps $250 a year – on a home built in pre-designated high fire danger areas such as steep hillsides that are regularly visited by high and dry winds.

Such a move may not be popular in some parts of the state but it is certainly better than continually trying to find new ways of taxing everyone so California can continue to allow development that increases the potential for major disasters and the outlay of hundreds of millions of dollars each year to combat infernos fueled by irresponsible urbanization patterns.

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