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Opponents urge landowners not to ignore fire fee bills
By TIM HEARDEN Capital Press October 24, 2012
REDDING, Calif. -- Lawmakers and opponents of the controversial new state fees for rural fire protection are urging homeowners to pay the fees under protest.
Bills for $150 per habitable structure are going out to more than 800,000 landowners served by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The fees are being challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. But HJTA legislative director David Wolfe warns landowners not to ignore their bills because they can incur fines of up to 20 percent a month if the charges aren't paid within 30 days.
Instead, he and others encourage landowners to write "paid in protest" on their checks and also submit petitions formally protesting the fees.
"We are talking about quite a bit of money," Wolfe acknowledged during a news conference here Oct. 23. He said the bills going out now are retroactive to 2011. The HJTA expects the state to send out 2012 bills around February and mail the 2013 bills around next August, he said.
Thousands of property owners have already formally protested the fees, Wolfe said.
"This is a tough economy," said former state Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, who is running for Congress. "A lot of people are out of work and gas prices are up. A lot of people are upset over these bills."
Wolfe, LaMalfa and state Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, planned to pass out petition forms and advise residents during an evening meeting Oct. 23 at the Redding city library.
The HJTA filed a class action in Sacramento Superior Court earlier this month to overturn the fees, which were set up as part of the 2011-2012 budget package and aim to raise $85 million to offset costs to Cal Fire.
The suit names plaintiffs from Lassen, Butte, Mendocino and six other counties and lists as defendants Cal Fire and the Board of Equalization -- the agencies responsible for identifying landowners subject to the new fees and collecting the fees, respectively.
The Jarvis group argues the fees violate an initiative passed by voters in 2010 that required a budget containing tax increases to pass the Legislature with a two-thirds majority.
Under the initiative, a fee can be approved by a majority vote if it's shown those paying the money are receiving the benefit. But opponents of the fees argue the money is going to the state's general fund rather than directly to Cal Fire.
The charges have been condemned by farm groups such as the California Farm Bureau Federation and California Cattlemen's Association as well as county officials who have said they would join the Jarvis suit.
"We certainly do expect like-minded groups to sign on as the lawsuit goes forward," Wolfe said.
If the opponents prevail in court, landowners have the best chance of receiving a refund if they have formally protested, Wolfe said. Meanwhile, Nielsen -- a candidate for the state Senate -- said he expects a bill to overturn the fees to gather steam in the next legislative session even though a similar bill this year died in an Assembly committee.
"I think legislation will pass because a lot of Democrats who voted for this tax are going to feel the heat," he said.
Fire Tax Protest: http://firetaxprotest.org/
Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association: http://www.hjta.org/
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Page Updated: Thursday October 25, 2012 02:02 AM Pacific
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