Millions of Dollars From State Fire Tax Go Unused Despite High Fire Danger

Over the four years that the state has imposed a fire tax (officially dubbed a “fire prevention fee”), the state has collected more than $300 million. But the at the end of the 2014-15 fiscal year, the state still had more than $43 million left in the fire tax account – during a time when the drought-stricken state’s fire danger has been very high.

The tax is imposed on property owners with habitable structures within the state’s rural fire responsibility areas, and funds are supposed to be used to support fire prevention and suppression. More than 800,000 property owners pay the tax of $117.33 per habitable structure.

Despite years of drought leading to high fire risk throughout much of the state, officials have been cautious in their spending of the funds.

“Given the fact that it’s a relatively new fund, there’s not a long track record on receipts,” California Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said. “We do want to maintain a prudent reserve for unforeseen circumstances.”

The fire tax fund began the 2015-16 fiscal year with reserves totaling more than half of the amount generated by the tax last year, while most of the state’s other special funds have reserves of about one-quarter of their total annual revenue. The state’s general fund, by comparison, ended the fiscal year with just a 3.5 percent reserve.

Republican state Senator Jim Nielsen, a member of the budget subcommittee that oversees the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CalFire), said: “They’re hoarding it. What for, I don’t know.”

More than 80 percent of the land burned in the recent Valley and Butte fires was located in state fire responsibility areas. Lake County fire departments had received a $188,000 grant from the fund earlier this year to clear vegetation and create a second evacuation route from Anderson Springs, but had not started the projects before the Valley Fire devastated the area. Overall, the state cut local assistance grants from $10 million to $5 million this year, and instead gave the other $5 million to the California Conservation Corps for fire-prevention activities.

The Legislature also has allowed CalFire to use revenue from the fire tax to pay for litigation to recover money from people who accidentally start fires, which likely is a violation of Proposition 26. CalFire officials said that pursuing those cases encourages people to be more careful, and actually is a means of preventing more fires.

Property owners have filed a class-action suit challenging the “fee” as an illegal tax. (Source: The Sacramento Bee,October 3.)

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