10:00 PM PDT on Sunday, July 3, 2011

By JIM MILLER
Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – The just-signed state budget is poised to hit the wallets of thousands of Inland Southern California residents living in places where the state has the main firefighting responsibility.

The budget bill approved last week by Gov. Jerry Brown assumes $50 million in revenue during 2011-12 from new charges on structures in “state responsibility areas,” which include some of California’s most fire-prone places.

There are about 100,000 structures in Riverside and San Bernardino counties that could be subject to a proposed $150 “fire prevention fee,” based on a review of census and Cal Fire data. Almost three-quarters of the structures are in places identified as having a very high fire threat.

In other counties, more structures are in places judged to have only a moderate fire danger. They would be assessed the same fee, however.

As of late Friday, Brown had not acted on the bill that would create the fee, effective Sept. 1. Once fully implemented, it would produce an estimated $150 million annually.

Similar proposals have been a staple of past budget debates, and nearly all have failed to be enacted. . Lawmakers adopted a parcel fee in 2003, but dropped it after farmers sued.

Not all of the responsibility areas are the same when it comes to fire risk, however.

Statewide, almost one-half of the structures in state responsibility areas are also in places with a very high fire danger, based on census and Cal Fire data.

The percentage is higher in the Inland area. Of the Riverside County structures, more than three-quarters are in places with a very high fire risk. Two-thirds of San Bernardino County structures are in very-high threat areas.

Other state areas have a smaller fire danger; about a third of the structures are in places with only a moderate fire risk.

Supporters of the new law contend that state taxpayers effectively subsidize residents in the state areas. The Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst has linked the areas’ rising population to increases in the state’s firefighting budget and more medical calls.

LEGALITY QUESTIONED

Critics, however, call the proposed charge illegal and unfair. Many homeowners in the targeted areas already pay for local fire protection, opponents said.

“There’s just a ton of places getting hit,” said Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore.

Only Democrats backed the fee when it passed the Legislature on June 15. Legislative attorneys have classified similar measures as a direct fee-for-service, meaning they could pass on a majority vote.

Republicans , however, called it a tax and said it should have required two-thirds approval — and thus at least two GOP votes in both houses.

Some groups, such as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the California Cattlemen’s Association, have said they might sue to block the charge.

“We want to see what the definitions are of ‘structures’ and see how Cal Fire would implement this legislation,” said Monterey County rancher Kevin Kester, the president of the cattlemen’s association. “Obviously I’m concerned about fees passed by a majority.”

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, the chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, said the state’s budget problems forced lawmakers to consider all options.

“When resources are dwindling, everybody’s looking around for who might be getting a slightly better deal,” said Blumenfield, D-Van Nuys. “People in those areas would directly benefit from the fee.”

STRUCTURE DATA

The state is responsible for fire protection on more than 31 million acres.

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