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Fire fees don’t pay for new services

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POSTED August 30, 2013 12:17 a.m.

In a recent column (“If $150 fee goes away Cal Fire needs ‘George Runner Rule’”), Dennis Wyatt questions my opposition to the Fire Prevention Fee, stating “one shouldn’t expect government services for nothing.”

Mr. Wyatt is right, of course—someone has to pay for government. But overtaxed Californians already pay plenty and often see little benefit.  Certainly, taxpayers who must pay the fire “fee” are receiving nothing new in return.

The truth is, not one dime of this unfair and illegal tax can be used to fight the fires currently burning across our state. That’s right, the so-called “Fire Prevention Fee” merely backfills state budget cuts to Cal Fire. By law the funds cannot and do not pay for fighting fires. Furthermore, since the money merely backfills existing Cal Fire programs, no new fire prevention programs have been created. 

Of the nearly 800,000 taxpayers billed, 98% already pay for local fire protection. Unfortunately, as rural fire chiefs know too well, the state’s confusing and controversial fire tax undermines local efforts to pay for the firefighters who actually put out fires.

The “fee” is supposed to prevent fires. If so, why all the fires? How are the funds being used? California taxpayers deserve answers they unfortunately are not receiving.

Cal Fire’s primary reason for existence isn’t even about rural California. The agency was created to protect water supplies for urban areas.

Consider for instance that Governor Brown recently declared a state of emergency in San Francisco because its water and power supplies are being threatened by the Rim Fire, currently burning more than 100 miles away in Tuolumne County. The entire state benefits from fire prevention and protection, not just the rural residents paying this “fee.”

Given the confusing and controversial nature of this tax, I’m sponsoring a series of regional telephone town hall meetings to give impacted taxpayers—many of whom are senior citizens living on fixed incomes in mobile homes—an opportunity to receive information and voice their questions and concerns.

Taxpayers are speaking out loudly and clearly. The following are just a few examples of what they’re saying:

•“I live on only Social Security—that’s all I get, and it’s already very difficult for me to make ends meet.”

•“I’m 81 years old, and I live on Social Security… I’m unable to work, and I can’t afford this… I don’t have the money to pay it.”

•“I was so afraid from what the letters were saying that if I didn’t get it in right away, somehow I was going to lose my property... This year I don’t have the money… I understand from what I’m hearing that there are lots and lots of seniors that are in my position.”

Rural Californians have good reason to be upset about this unfair tax. Although disguised as a fee, it is really an illegal tax. That’s why the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, with my full support, has filed a class action lawsuit asking the courts to strike down this law. As an elected representative and taxpayer advocate, it’s my duty and an honor to fight for fair tax treatment for all Californians.

George Runner represents more than nine million Californians as a taxpayer advocate and elected member of the State Board of Equalization. For more information, visit boe.ca.gov/Runner or calfirefee.com.

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