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Challenging The State’s $150 Fire Fee

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Two San Diego County supervisors are asking fellow board members to challenge the state's $150 fire fee on rural properties -- saying it unfairly targets rural property owners in order to make up for the state's inability to balance the budget.


Dianne Jacob, Supervisor, San Diego County Board of Supervisors

Ron Peterka, Board Member, Intermountain Fire-Rescue Department

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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: A imagine is brewing in San Diego to the new state fire prevention fee on homeowners in the back country. Two county supervisors say the county should consider a lawsuit to stop the new $150 fee on homes in wild land areas of protected by cal fire. But the state is in a bad financial situation, and last year, cal fire responded to nearly 300 fires in San Diego's back country. Joining me to talk about the challenge to the new fee is my guest, San Diego County supervisor, Diane Jacob. Supervisor Jacob, hello.

JACOB: Hello.

CAVANAUGH: Along with supervisor Slater Price, you're submitting a memo to the board asking them to consider challenging this new fire levy in court. What are your concerns about the mandatory fee?

JACOB: We're going to and the board tomorrow to oppose this fee and then look at our legal options in challenging the fee also. But the reasons are several. Upon number one, this is a slap in the face particularly to fire victims who were burned out during the '03 and '07 fires. Many of them live in she's state responsibility areas. It's triple taxation. First of all, people in these state responsibility areas are already paying taxes and fire and emergency medical services are part of what we expect our property taxes to be spent for. Second of all, many of these people in these areas are saying an additional assessment. And if you look at folks who live in the community of Crest, they're paying almost $400 a year, $382, to be exact. That's in addition to the property taxes that they're paying. It's a special assessment. And then thirdly and very significant. Unlike other counties, I would suggest is that the county of San Diego has been spending 15 and a half million dollars in these areas to improve fire and emergency medical services. And 10.2†million of that annually goes directly to cal fire and to keep cal fire's stations opened and in business. And this whole idea that this money, this hundred and $50 fire fee, I call it a tax, is going to go for prevention? That's just hog wash. When you talk about prevention, look at who does the prevention. It's homeowners in these areas. They're responsible for either paying or through sweat equity to provide defensible space around their homes. There are fire safe councils, volunteers in the community that help out doing there, that, and there are other programs.

CAVANAUGH: Supervisor Jacob, I'm wondering, do we know how many homes are affected by this? How is this determined by parcel? Is this a parcel tax?

JACOB: As I understand the tax is to be assessed on every habitable structure. And there are over 70,000 homeowners that would be affected by this particular fire tax.

CAVANAUGH: Now, a lot of people feel that people living in the back country actually have to pay because they choose to live in those areas. You've outlined where there is -- there are some extra fees already being paid by some homeowners in that area. A couple years ago, voters in the back country defeated prop A which would have been a parcel tax for fire control. Isn't it true, though, most of our expires start in that area? Shouldn't people who choose to live in these rural areas be paying more?

JACOB: People in these areas are already paying more, as I indicated. And the county of San Diego is paying more to keep the cal fire stations open. But let's look at how wild land fires are started. I do not recall one wild land fire to be started by a house. Houses do not cause wild land fires. The cedar fire was caused by a hunter. And forest service property. If you look at the more recent 2007 fires, three of those fires were started because of the negligence of SDG&E and their power lines. So when you look at the history of how the wild land fires have been started, it's not because of houses in the back country. And the state has a responsibility -- their primary responsibility is for wild land fires. Our local fire district, our local agency is responsible for protecting structures in that regard. Having said that, as I mentioned before, the county of San Diego has stepped up to the plate going out and beyond the call of duty in order to not only fund and improve our preparedness for fire and emergency medical services in these areas but we're funding over $10†million of what should be the state responsibility in these areas 'cause it goes directly to cal fire.

CAVANAUGH: Is it clear how this additional money would be used by the state?

JACOB: It is not. It is not. And for the state to balance their budget on the backs of homeowners, and particularly people who were burned out and lost everything during our fires, is so, so wrong. And that's why we're fighting back.

CAVANAUGH: Supporters might say something, supervisor Jacob, along the lines of if a cash strapped state can't and for more money to fight fires from people living in fire prone areas, where can it get it from?

JACOB: How about the state budget? The state budget has over $80†billion. We're talking about a very, very insignificant amount of money. And when you look at it, as an elected official, and this goes for our governor and all of our state elected officials, they should put public safety and public protection as their number one budget priority. Yes, this is not the first year that they've recommended cuts in cal fire's budget or they're now recommending this absolutely ridiculous hundred and $50 fire fee. They should not even be touching the cal fire budget. In fact, it's pay now or pay later. They're going to pay the price. But this hundred and $50 fee is just -- it is an absolute slap in the face to people who live in these areas when they're paying already for this kind of wile land fire protection. The State of California financially is upside down. They have not learned yet, those elected officials in Sacramento, they have not learned how to prioritize what's most important to the people in this state. Nor have they learned that you can't spend more than you're taking in.

CAVANAUGH: Will the Board of Supervisors take this issue up tomorrow? And what do you hope will come out of this?

JACOB: Yes, are the Board of Supervisors will take up the issue tomorrow to oppose this fire tax. And also to take whatever actions are necessary, both legislative or legally, to fight it.

CAVANAUGH: If indeed legal action is taken, won't that cost the county some money?

JACOB: It'll cost us some money to fight it legally. But there are times like this when we need to take a stand on behalf of the people and protect the people from the unjust way that the State of California deals with their budget.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you for your time, and for speaking with us. I've been speaking with San Diego County supervisor, Diane Jakob. Thanks so much.

JACOB: You're welcome. Any time.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I'd like to turn now to Ron Paterka. He's a board member with the Intermountain Fire Rescue Department. Hi, Ron.

PATERKA: Good morning. Good afternoon, I guess now.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Let me and you for your response. You've been listening to what supervisor Jacob has been saying. What's your reaction?

PATERKA: Well, first of all, her arguments are very good points, and excellent points. I have a couple of things to add to that though. I'm speaking on a personal level, but I have 18†years experience with the board of directors with the rural fire department out here. A volunteer fire department that produces over 3500†hours of volunteer time a month. That represents 2 to $4†million a year in laborer costs saved if -- depending on how you do it. In any case, we serve 100 and 25†square miles of back country east of Ramona. And we run about 300 calls a year. Just in our department. Now, we depend on funding, and we depend on donations. And the county and state are all running tight on finances. We understand that. But we'd also depend on donations from our supporting people within our area. Since it is rural, we wind up with a very small number of residences, about 400 to 450 residences spread out over 100 and 25†square miles. To and them to pay for 300 calls a year for people about 85†percent of which are nonresidents is a pretty steep order. To add a fee, tax if you will, on top of that in an area that is already declared to be low income area doesn't sound like a very good idea. In fact, it may just kill our volunteer department. A crippling blow at the very least.

CAVANAUGH: You're a volunteer department. Do you work alongside cal fire?

PATERKA: Absolutely. We have a very good reputation with all of the adjoining fire departments. Our men, all 40 of them, and women, incidentally, are all trained to -- they call firefighter one level. This is a professional firefighter level training. We lose a lot of our people on a regular basis who go on to join pied fire departments.

CAVANAUGH: If cal fire were to get some additional moneys to fight fires in the back country, wouldn't that also help your mission?

PATERKA: I don't know how. The only thing -- our responsibility, as we understand it, is to pick up where cal fire does not have a man date to deal with it. When I moved into Ramona here in 1991, people jokingly told me make sure I planted a free in at this time front yard so if I had a fire in the house, I could light the tree, and then cal fire would be out there. They were joking.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, of course.

PATERKA: But our department is primarily dealing with roadside emergencies, and the occasional fire. We were -- the fact is we were the first fire department on scene at the Witch fire. It started about file might have been miles east of our station and almost got our station.

CAVANAUGH: So your main concern is that this is going to draw money away from the donations your volunteer fire department uses to stay ark live. That at least is your fear.

PATERKA: Absolute. We run a subscription donation program. And it averages about $100 a family. And we get about $12,000 a year. That's about 100 and 20 people out of 400 and some that are able to donate now at $100 level on average. Now, the money is critical for us because this is money that we can often use for matching funds to get grants. Very often we're expected to come up with 5, 10, or more% of whatever we're looking for. You need a new engine, and it's $300,000. If we can come up with $3,000, we can get a $300,000 engine. If we don't have the money, we can't put the matching funds network we can't get the engine.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we are just about out of time, Ron. And I want to let everybody know that we did invite a spokes person from cal fire to join this conversation. They were unable to do that today. I'm sure that this is not the last time we're going to be addressing this topic. I have been speaking with Ron Paterka, board member with the intermountain fire rescue department. Thank you so much.

PATERKA: Thank you.


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