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Fire-Fee Negotiations Authorized

New State Law Confers Right on Property Owners

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Posted: Thursday, July 30, 2015 12:00 am

Property owners subject to the state’s controversial annual fire-prevention fee may be getting another mailing from Cal Fire in the near future, but there won’t be a bill inside the envelope.

Instead, the notification is expected to inform them of the provisions of a new law, signed into effect by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. on July 15, that relates to the fee.

The law, introduced in February by Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals), says that when a property with one or more habitable structures, subject to the fire-prevention fee, is for sale, its owner may negotiate with a buyer, as one of the terms of sale, as to how the liability for paying the fee shall be apportioned.

One of the law’s provisions is that Cal Fire—known formally as the Department of forestry and Fire Protection—is required to notify affected owners about their new right to negotiate the fee’s apportionment.

But regardless of how the parties decide on how much each should pay, payment of the total fee remains the responsibility of the person who owns the structure on July 1 of the year during which the fee is due.

Though the new law may give some latitude to property owners, it does nothing about the law itself, which the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) has challenged in court, claiming it was adopted illegally.

The fee was adopted by the legislature and signed into law by the governor in July 2011. The Jarvis lawsuit alleges the fee is actually a property tax and because, under Proposition 13, increases in property taxes must receive a two-thirds approval of the legislature, the fee is illegal because it fell short of that margin of approval.

Opponents of the fee also say it was enacted merely to backfill cuts made in Cal Fire’s budget during the worst days of the recession, and that it does nothing to fight fires.

The fee began at $150 a year but has since risen, with inflation, to $152.33. Property owners who already pay for fire services on their tax bills, including residents of the San Bernardino Mountains, receive a $35 discount each year.

Representatives of the HJTA had not returned repeated calls for comment on the new law by press time.

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