September 13, 2012 8:55 AM
DON THOMPSON, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — One of California’s top elected tax collectors is facing criticism for his high-profile campaign to block a controversial fee that Democratic leaders say he and the state board he serves are responsible for collecting, not opposing.

Republican Board of Equalization member George Runner says the Democratic Legislature and governor engaged in an “illegal money-grab” when they voted last year to charge rural residents whose homes are at risk from wildfires a $150 fee.

Runner has a website encouraging homeowners to appeal the fee. He has written and spoken out against it, and says he will join a planned lawsuit by opponents who argue it is an unconstitutional tax.

“I’ve opposed this new tax from the beginning, because I believe it is unconstitutional,” Runner says on his website. “I intend to join a lawsuit asking the courts to halt this illegal money-grab as soon as possible.”

Democrats including state Controller John Chiang, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and fellow Board of Equalization member Betty Yee say Runner, a former state senator who was elected to the BOE in 2010, has gone too far in opposing a lawfully enacted fee he helps administer.

“He has a different role now. His job is to implement the law,” said Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

Yee said Runner should simply refer any citizens’ complaints to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which will benefit from the projected $84.4 million it is expected to raise.

“He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but trying to corral people into opposing the fee seems a little untoward,” she said.

California Common Cause lobbyist Phillip Ung and Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, both said Runner is within his rights as an elected official in opposing the fee.

The five-member Board of Equalization collects the state’s sales, fuel, alcohol, and tobacco taxes as well as various fees, including the fire fee. At Runner’s urging, the board also mailed notices to property owners in advance of the fire fee billing.

The board began sending out bills a month ago to the first of more than 825,000 property owners. It will help pay for existing fire prevention services. About 95 percent of rural property owners will get a $35 discount because they already pay a local fire protection tax.

Runner said Wednesday that he is appropriately balancing his dual responsibilities by opposing the fee even as he helps collect it. He said he represents 9 million people, and about half the new fire fee bills are going to people in his sprawling district, which covers most of inland California from San Bernardino to the Oregon border.

“I don’t know that anyone could point to anything that we have done other than to enhance the responsibilities that the Legislature has given us,” he said, referring to his own activities. “We make it real clear: We tell people to pay it. We don’t want people to get caught up in penalties and interest.”

Runner encourages residents to pay their bills on time and in full. But he also tells property owners how to appeal on several grounds.

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