Fire Tax: Huge Noncompliance Rate; El Dorado County Joins Suit Against Tax
With noncompliance running high, California's new $150 fire tax, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in 2011, has ignited a firestorm of protest around the state. Even government agencies and officials are protesting the tax, which is described by proponents as a "fee," and was approved without the two-thirds legislative vote required for taxes.
El Dorado County supervisors voted unanimously October 16 to join a suit filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association challenging the legality of the tax. "Hundreds of residents have contracted the county to voice their frustration about the fire tax," El Dorado County Supervisor John Knight said. "The Board of Supervisors can't sit idly by while the state is running a legalized extortion scheme on rural residents."
The county itself was billed for the tax on five separate properties.
At a State Board of Equalization meeting in Culver City on October 23, David Gau, head of the BOE's Property and Special Taxes Division, said noncompliance is running from 17 percent to 35 percent, as taxpayers are not paying the bills they receive. The board had predicted a noncompliance rate of 7 percent. According to the BOE's October 26 weekly report, 271,633 property owners have failed to pay their fire tax bills, and the BOE has mailed 43,756 demand notices.
BOE Member George Runner noted that the cost of getting taxpayers to comply will "burn up" much of the $150 per structure (or $115 for structures in specified areas) that will be collected.
Mr. Gau told the board there are two penalties that will be imposed for failure to pay the tax. One is a 10 percent late payment penalty. The other is a 20 percent per month (240 percent per year!) penalty that will be imposed if a taxpayer loses a tax appeal and fails to pay after a demand letter is sent.
Throughout the state, opposition is being voiced.
The Marin County Fire Chiefs Association has announced its opposition to the tax, saying, "We believe this fee is onerous to the residents who will not see any direct benefit from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection."
In Monterey County, Butch Kronlund, president of the Coast Property Owners Association, said, "The fee – or tax – we are being charged by the state does not enhance fire protection services one iota."
"We're not exactly sure how it will be coming in and exactly what the criteria would be to expend those funds," said Cal Fire Monterey-San Benito Unit Chief Rick Hutchinson. "We were not involved in the process at all – it was part of the budget approved last summer."
Humboldt County Fire Chiefs Association President Lon Winburn said he supports the lawsuit "wholeheartedly." Mr. Winburn added, "We agree it's an illegal tax."
In a letter to the editor of the Mariposa Gazette, property owner Sandra Skar wrote: "Well, we've all now received our first statement for the new 'fire fee.' The PR leading up to this charge adamantly assured us this was not a tax. Did anyone happen to notice the first line of the return address on the enclosed envelope reads: 'Special Taxes Remittance Processing'? Hmm."
The Modoc County Record News reported: "Residents of Surprise Valley, as well as other residents of Modoc County, are upset about the new $150 Fire Tax being assessed by the state of California. It is especially disturbing to people who live on County Road 1 where the west side of the road must pay the tax and the east side does not."
(Sources: The Sacramento Bee, October 25; Marin Independent Journal, September 26; Big Bear Grizzly, October 23; Eureka Times-Standard, October 16; Carmel Pine Cone, October 12; Mariposa Gazette, October 18; Modoc County Record News, October 18; and testimony at the State Board of Equalization meeting, October 23.)