Approximately 1,200 California residents participated in a telephone town hall meeting Wednesday night regarding the controversial California Fire Prevention Fee. It was the largest in a series of regional town hall meetings organized by state Board of Equalization member George Runner for taxpayers throughout his district.
Five elected state officials – Senator Steve Knight and Assemblymembers Shannon Grove, Connie Conway, Jim Patterson and Scott Wilk – joined Runner to field questions from callers and explain how to fight the Fire Fee.
“Many individuals share my concern about the fairness and cost of this tax,” Runner said. “The state is currently mailing bills to nearly 800,000 rural Californians demanding they pay a so-called fire ‘fee,’ but not one dime of it can be used to fight the fires currently burning across our state. As their elected taxpayer advocate, I want to hear their concerns and answer their questions.”
The fee requires California taxpayers living in unincorporated areas to pay $150 per habitable structure to help cover the costs of preventing wildfires.
Sen. Steve Knight
“This fee will fund a variety of important fire prevention services within the SRA (State Responsibility Area) including brush clearance around communities on public lands, along roadways and evacuation routes; and activities to improve forest health so the forest can better withstand wildfire,” according the state’s California Fire Prevention Fee website.
Knight said that of the more than 1,000 participants, the panel was only able to field about 20 questions. Many of them asked why the fee had been put in place and whether they were required to pay it.
“You need to pay the fee,” Wilk said, “because if you don’t pay the fee, there are very high interest rates.”
Assemblyman Scott Wilk
But participants were also encouraged to contest the fee. Several state legislators, including those who participated in the town hall, believe that the fee was passed unconstitutionally.
“Frankly, it’s not a fee, it’s an illegal tax,” Wilk said.
They support a lawsuit by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association against the fee, because it was passed with a simple majority, instead of the two-thirds majority required for taxes.
The lawsuit will likely go to court next summer, Knight said.
In the meantime, officials held the town hall meeting hoping to educate the public on how to best handle the fee and how to let their voices be heard.