As San Diego County’s due date for paying the first installment of property taxes loomed on December 10, an additional $150 tax bill began arriving in property owners’ mailboxes.
The new per-parcel tax, sent to most property owners in unincorporated areas, is on behalf of CalFire, the state’s firefighting agency. CalFire usually becomes the lead firefighting agency in a wildfire crisis, such as those San Diego County experienced in 2003 and 2007.
In 2011, after losing $80 million in funding due to the lingering budget crisis, bureaucrats at CalFire found an ally in assemblyman Robert Blumenfield (D-Van Nuys). Blumenfield introduced his bill ABX1 29, quickly got it passed by his fellow democratic legislators, and Governor Brown signed it.
But CalFire has some big problems ahead in its first year of trying to collect the tax. Many area fire agencies and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors have filed protests, as have other agencies up and down the state. A lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association claims it’s an illegal tax.
Under Proposition 13, California law requires any new tax to be approved by a vote of the people. Assemblyman Blumenfield carefully worded his bill to label it a “benefit fee.” Fees for services do not require a vote.
The main issue for property owners in semi-rural communities such as Alpine, Bonsall, Fallbrook, Rancho Santa Fe, and Valley Center is that they already pay taxes to support their fully staffed and equipped fire departments. Yet, property owners in those communities also have been billed the $150 fee.
Perhaps the biggest travesty, as pointed out by opponents, is that — of the millions of dollars to be collected — not one penny will be used for firefighting. As it was labeled a “fire prevention” fee, CalFire will use the funds to talk with property owners about brush-clearing setbacks, mail brochures, and grant money for special fire-prevention programs around the state. Enforcement officers will also be hired, and they will be able to write tickets for violators.
Rancho Santa Fe’s fire chief Tony Michel stated, “We already have fancy brochures, and we work in our community to help them be fire-safe.”
CalFire determines, through a complicated formula, which areas of unincorporated communities might become the state’s responsibility should a major wildfire break out, looking at density of structures and size of parcels.
A CalFire "state responsibility area" (SRA) map of San Diego hot spots
It’s interesting to note that in the western areas of San Diego County now being charged the tax, the tax boundary closely follows the same areas devastated by the 2007 wildfires.
Fallbrook resident Vickie Harjo was shocked when she got her first bill. “I’m being double-taxed and punished for where I live,” she said. Harjo was one of 207 people who lost their homes in the 2007 Rice Canyon fire that spread up Fallbrook canyons along the 15 freeway.
One of the fee’s biggest opponents is a director of the agency that collects the fee on behalf of CalFire: serving District Two of the Board of Equalization (California’s sales-tax agency), director George Runner is vehemently opposed to the tax. He personally hosts an opposition website, calfirefee.com.