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A Hot Debate Over the Fire Fee

August 1, 2012 1:08 p.m.


San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob

California State Senator Christine Kehoe represents the 39 district in San Diego.

Related Story: Supervisor Jacob, Senator Kehoe Battle It Out Over Fire Fee


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The fire fee signed into law by governor Jerry Brown last year imposes a flat $150 assessment on residences in state responsibility areas, mostly located in the rural back country. It's aimed at giving CAL FIRE more money to prevent fire in these fire-prone areas. But opponents are adamant that this is not a fee, but a tax, and even a double tax on people who live in rural areas. Joining me to talk about the fire fee are my guests, San Diego County supervisor Diane Jacob, welcome.

JACOB: Thank you. Good to be here with you.

CAVANAUGH: And California state Senator Christine Kehoe joins us, she represents the 39th district in San Diego. Welcome.

KEHOE: Thank you, Maureen. Good to see you.

CAVANAUGH: We're opening our phone lines. Supervisor Jacob, you participated in a statewide press conference this week of county officials who are opposed to the fee. Why is there so much opposition to the new fire fee?

JACOB: Well, first of all, we pay property taxes in order to fund public protection. And that should be the first budget priority of state government, federal government, and local government. In addition to that, many people in our backcountry, in state responsibility areas in the fire district, pay an additional property tax assessment. In Crest, folks there in that fire district, they're in the San Miguel fire district, they pay $400 a year more, up to that. In addition to that, the county of San Diego is different than other counties in regard to the fact that since 2003 cedar Fire, we've invested over $230 million in improving our fire protection preparedness, vegetation management and defensible space, brush clearing, a whole list. Equipment, personnel. A part of that, $15.5 million annually, we spent over the last several years. And $10.2 million of that goes directly into these state responsibility areas, which is the responsibility of the state, but local taxpayers through the county, government, county general fund, have been supporting for several years to the tune of $10.2 million, which ironically is just about what that $150 per habitable structure fire fee and about 34,000 structures it's estimated will generate, about $10 million a year, and there's no guarantee we'll get that back. And it's for fire prevention, not fire protection. So it would actually be a -- not just a triple whammy to taxpayers in this region, but it would be a quadruple, whammy, and that's why I testified earlier this year to the state board of forestry because we're already paying, not once, not twice, but three times that San Diego County should be exempt from this fee.

CAVANAUGH: Let me have senator Kehoe take us back to the vote last year. Why did you vote for the additional fire fee?

KEHOE: I voted for it, Maureen, because I strongly believe it's necessary. In the 12 years that I've been in the legislature, actually our legislative analyst's office tabulated in a recent report the cost of firefighting for CAL FIRE has doubled. It's increased 100%. The steps we have to take with fire prevention, which is so much cheaper than firefighting, will be better inspections for defensible space, making sure that construction is done with a proper building materials, updating, making current our fire hazard severity maps, which are done by UC Berkeley. That's vital to planners, vital to firefighters when they're on the ground or in the air looking at how fires are moving around. So these are major, major steps. It's not helicopters and trucks, but it is work that must be done if we're going to step up and meet the challenge of fire safety. We know firefighting is going to be more frequent, intense, and expensive due to climate change and other factors. You can ask Scripps, the universities all across the Rocky Mountain states and the west coast. So we need to be prepared.

CAVANAUGH: What about the extra fees that many residents who live in that area in San Diego County already pay?

KEHOE: Yes. These are significant fees. Diane and I have talked about this many times. I think San Diego is probably one of the largest counties in the state that does not have a county fire department. We had an array of smaller departments. And I think I could say Diane has led the charge in moving toward consolidation, which is something we must do. And that takes money to do that. That's just one example of steps we need to take to be better prepared for the challenges that San Diego is going to have to meet. Our wildfires tend to start in east county and sweep into the cities or into other places in the county. Only about half of the -- or some portion of county lands are covered by the patchwork of backcountry fire departments. We need to have a thorough coverage in a partnership with CAL FIRE and the locals.

CAVANAUGH: Legal get some basic facts about this before we go on. Who is going to pay this fee, Diane Jacob?

JACOB: Well, first of all, we do have a San Diego County fire authority, which encompasses about half the geographic size of the county. 1.5 million acres. So we have taken all of these volunteer fire departments and all these agencies and put it under one umbrella. In fact, we contract with CAL FIRE and the division chief of CAL FIRE, chief Tom porter, is the fire chief of the San Diego County fire authority. So we have done a lot of consolidation, and we're keeping some 50 stations open in these backcountry areas that were previously staffed by volunteers, and now they're staffed 24/7, 365 days a year. So we're picking up a lot of the responsibility working closely with CAL FIRE in a seamless system in our backcountry. Secondly, and I have a lot of respect for the Senator, Chris and I have worked together on many, many issue, and she's done a fabulous job. On this issue, we have to disagree. Most of what she's indicated that this fee is supposed to go for, we're already doing. It's duplication. And in addition to that, people are very, very sensitive to our year-round fire risk, and the defensible space, they pay for a lot of that themselves plus we're already doing inspections and a lot of the vegetation management.

CAVANAUGH: Let me rephrase the question that I was going to ask you to move the conversation along. It's my understanding that CAL FIRE says that San Diego County has the largest number of residents who would be affected by this particular fire fee. It's way over any other county. It's about 100,000 people. And I -- I'm wondering if -- did you know that? Were you aware of that, Chris, when voted for this, that San Diego County would be the place that would be paying 12% of the entire state fee on this new fire fee?

KEHOE: We know that San Diego County -- it's a county of 3 million people, so the 100,000 folks that live in the backcountry, and in the unincorporated area, that's a small fraction of the number of people that are out there. The city is about 1.3 million people in and the remainder of the county. So that points to another problem we have. The most expensive way to fight a fire is trying to surround and protect a home that is in a remote area. San Diego is dot the with beautiful backcountry neighborhoods, but that's exactly where the danger and the cost of firefighting lie. And I just want to say Diane has done a terrific job of the consolidation effort. San Diego County is forward-thinking, but still more needs to be done. Look at the fires that raged through Colorado and New Mexico. This is some of our topography, and some of our home development is that same style, the remote, big house on the crest. It takes a lot of effort to get fire trucks and firefighters in there. You need air support. This is where $10 million could be spent in a week, if you're talking about a fire on the scale of 2003 or 2007. So we need to prepare. That's what the mapping, the fire prevention, that's what the building construction and inspection is for. It needs to be done if we're going to have a really modern and effective response to firefighting.

CAVANAUGH: Diane Jacob, let me challenge you just a little bit on this. You heard what Senator Kehoe was just saying about how expensive all of this is, and how the big fires that we have had have started in these backcountry areas. This $150 fee is less than some people might pay on a vehicle registration fee. So I'm just wondering, considering the good that it could do for the entire county, why there would be so much opposition to this.

JACOB: Well, let me tell you, first of all, it's triple if not quadruple taxation on these folks. The shame of it all is that many of these people that will be paying this $150 are the same people that have been burned out in either 2003 or 2007, which is extremely unfortunate. I was on a conference call the other day as you mentioned, Maureen. And on that conference call, they still haven't figured out how to administer the fee. It's anticipated San Diego County would generate about $10 million there's no guarantee San Diego County residents will receive that $10 million back to do what Kris is talking about. No. 1. No. 2, it was shared with me on the conference call that it could be 2017 before any of these moneys are distributed, plus the fact some of the assessors indicated they don't know where the state board of equalization are getting the list. Again, this is state responsibility areas. I would underscore the word "state." The State of California has proper responsibility for wildland fires. It's the local fire districts and the San Diego County fire authorities whose primary responsibility is structural fire protection. So the state has failed to do their job, they've failed to put their budget priorities in order, and now they're -- it's a slap in the face to those folks with no guarantee that we'll even see any of that money. Plus people need to be aware, if they receive a bill, which the bills have been delayed for a couple of weeks from what I learned the other day, and they'll be set out in alphabetical order, and we're way down on the list, but people in San Diego County, when they receive a bill they need to look at that bill very carefully. First of all to check to see is it a habitable structure. And there was some disagreement on what the definition of habitable structure is. And do they live in a state responsibility area? Again, the assessors on the call didn't know where the state board of equalization was getting the list to send this out. Some of the assessors' roles if they were getting it from there are not up-to-date. This is a gigantic mess in terms of administration of this fee.

CAVANAUGH: Department they get the list from CAL FIRE?

JACOB: Where would CAL FIRE get the list?


KEHOE: My understanding is they got it from CAL FIRE. How it was exactly prepared, I don't know.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you, Senator Kehoe, everything that supervisor Jacob said about the way the county of San Diego has responded to its wildfire threat, and the amount of money it spent on fire protection, the amount of money for fire prevention, and her request in light of that to have San Diego County exempt from this fee, is there any momentum? Do you see any argument to be made that why San Diego perhaps should not be taxed the same way people in Amador county are if they haven't extended the same amount of money for those resources?

KEHOE: I'd have to say that this is something Diane and I are going to have to disagree on. We're in this together. California firefighting is based on mutual aid. When San Diego went up in blazing smoke in 2003 and 2007, fire trucks, planes and helicopters came from all over the state. San Diego County doesn't stand alone no matter how good a job it's doing. It needs massive, intense aid during a crisis. And it gets it, every single time. There's no delay. The City of San Diego pours its firefighters and trucks out of the city and into the backcountry. Other counties come. In is a statewide fee, it'll generate about $88 million statewide. $10 million may come out of the county. There is also, I want to tell people who will be getting the bill, there's a fire prevention fee website people can go and get more information, and also our offices are happy to put you in contact with the right people.

CAVANAUGH: In closing, I want to talk about this lawsuit. You said during this news conference that you are -- I think poised to file a lawsuit. Who is we? The county of San Diego?

JACOB: County of San Diego is poised to file a lawsuit in we have standing. And to have standing the county itself has to receive a bill. Having said that, the Howard Jarvis taxpayers' association will file a lawsuit. We're just waiting for the bills to come out on. They need a plaintiff, and we will be suing the state. This is not a fee, this is clearly a tax.

CAVANAUGH: That is the reason for the lawsuit. That's the legal ground this lawsuit stands on?

JACOB: That's one of the reasons. There may be others.

CAVANAUGH: Is it worth spending county money if that's what it winds up being on a lawsuit against this fee?

JACOB: Absolutely. There's a principle involved here. And from a local government standpoint, this is not one, but it's one of many, attempts by the State of California to dump their budget problems on the people, reaching into their pockets or on the cities or on the counties. The prisoner dump, the parolee dump, without sending appropriate funds. We can do these jobs better locally if we have adequate money. But the state needs to do what the county did many, many years ago. They need to not spend more than they're taking in, they need to balance their budget, structurally balance it, and not do it on the backs of local folks, and particularly those who have been burned out. This is another way to burn them.

CAVANAUGH: I want to give you another brief final word.

KEHOE: It's an important fee that is going to roll out. It's going to add to fire protection and prevention in our state and county directly. It is something that we need to do. We need to update a lot of our fire prevention efforts, and we can get it done. And I think it's unwise for the county to go to court. We wind up in court, the ability for state and counties to negotiate and to be flexible is lost. It's up to a judge or a jury. It doesn't always work out the way the local agencies think. Look at our redevelopment dispute. The locals made the situation worse by suing. So I think that more thought should go into this. The fee is necessary. It is a fraction of what we need to do. And I hope -- nobody wants to pay a tax, nobody wants to levy a tax, but we need to get our firefighting funded. It's only halfway funded now.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much.

JACOB: Thank you.

KEHOE: Thank you.