The State Board of Equalization, in cooperation with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), is in the process of mailing more than 800,000 advance notices to "owners of state responsibility area habitable structures" to inform them of their upcoming assessment of the new state fire tax. The BOE also is in the process of mailing these rural property owners a subsequent $150 assessment ($115 if the owner also is served by a local fire protection agency). (CalTax: State responsibility area, or SRA, lands roughly correspond to areas that are covered in timber and other vegetation, or contiguous rangelands, which provide watershed value; they do not include areas within federal ownership or within incorporated cities.)
To identify rural property owners subject to the fire tax, CalFire executed a $3 million contract with SCI Consulting Group, a California firm that specializes in the administration of benefit fees and other levies for governmental agencies throughout California. According to CalFire: "Determination of habitable structures as required by state law is technical and use of [an outside contractor] gains accuracy and efficiency. In addition, use of [an outside contractor] maintains uniform application of the Fire Prevention fee statewide."
Local officials, including county assessors, were not involved in the determination of parcels within SRAs, or in the identification of "habitable structures" subject to the tax, according to CalFire.
To date, the BOE has mailed fire tax assessments to rural property owners in Alameda, Alpine, Amador, Butte, Calaveras, Colusa, Contra Costa, Del Norte and El Dorado counties. The BOE is mailing the assessments in alphabetical order by county and, as of September 7, has scheduled its mailings through the P's (Placer County rural property owners are expected to receive their assessments October 9 through 15).
People and businesses who no longer own property within an SRA may be surprised to receive a fire tax bill. However, according to CalFire, the person responsible for paying the tax for the 2011-12 fiscal year "is the owner of record as of July 1, 2011 on the county assessor rolls, or as recorded in the records of the California Department of Housing and Community Development." The fire agency adds: "This is the case regardless of whether the owner of record at that time is still the property owner now. The July 1st date is used because that is the same date used for the issuance of property tax bills. If you no longer own the property, you will not be subject to this fee for that particular property in future years."
Rural property owners subject to the fire tax will receive their next bill in the spring of 2013, for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Thereafter, the BOE will bill for the fire tax every year in March.
Legislation to repeal the fire tax was not approved this year, so the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association plans to file suit to challenge the legality of the fire tax, as it was passed by the Legislature with a majority vote under the name of a "fire prevention fee," rather than with the support of at least two-thirds of the Legislature, as required for taxes.
September 7, 2012
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