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A state-legislated fee of $150 will be sent to residents throughout California who live in State Responsibility Areas to help pay for fire protection services. Neighborhoods like those in Rancho Santa Fe will start to receive the bills in the next four months. Photo by Tony Cagala
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Fire fee bills head out to unincorporated areas of state this month

RANCHO SANTA FE — Starting this month, residents in SRA (State Responsibility Areas) throughout the state will begin receiving bills in the mail to pay for fire prevention services. 

Businesses and offices won’t be charged the fee.

The bills will be sent out alphabetically on a county-by-county process, explained Daniel Berlant, a Cal Fire spokesman. “So, Alameda, Amador counties, those are going to be some of the first areas that receive the fee and then…San Diego is going to be closer to the bottom,” he said. The bills will be sent out over a four month period.

The $150 annual fee will be applied to each habitable structure on residents’ properties. “If a property has two separate habitable structures or two residences they will be charged per each one,” Berlant said.

There is no fee assistance for this program, but for residents living within an area serviced by a second fire protection district, they will receive a $35 credit.

Residents in Rancho Santa Fe will receive the credit due to the fire protection services of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Department (RSFFD), in which case most residents’ bills will be $115 per habitable structure.

RSFFD Chief Tony Michel has expressed his opposition to the SRA fee, including at a public comments session held by the Board of Foresters in May at the chambers of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

The fee, imposed by legislation, was supposed to go to fire prevention monies for Cal Fire, Michel explained. “But the district’s not going to get anything out of it for the foreseeable future,” he added.

Michel said the department currently has wild fire prevention staff that can conduct and aggressively maintain a good vegetation management plan, and we’re not going to see any help from that (fee) in the foreseeable future, and they can’t tell us where that money’s going to be going.

“Even the director of Cal Fires has said that…right now they’re looking at how it’s going to be spent, but they really haven’t a good, well-laid out plan for it,” Michel said. “I’d say the majority of the fire districts in San Diego probably feel the same way.”

According to Berlant, the monies generated by the fee will go into a special fund that will be used on fire prevention services within the areas known as the State Responsibility Areas.

“That includes brush clearance, forest health, fuel reduction projects, defensible space — work that’s done to prevent the fire in the first place. But it’s going to go, this year, specifically towards services provided by the State,” Berlant said.

Michel said they’ve already done their fight against the imposed fee. “It’s just a matter of us going to be trying to hold them accountable to make sure that the fees get spent wisely.”

He added that there may be some grant money available from the fees in the future, to which the department will aggressively go after some of that grant money.

“It’s still being determined whether in the future there will be a grant process,” Berlant said. “Ultimately, in the State Responsibility Areas, though we rely heavily on the local fire agencies to help us out when there’s a wildfire, the…financial responsibility of paying for that fire rests with the state.

“When we have a major fire in San Diego County, even though it may fall within another local agency’s jurisdiction as well, we’re still ultimately going to…be the responsible ones to have to pay for it. And so that’s why this fee is specifically going towards state services.”

Michel said he doesn’t see this affecting any partnership between RSFFD and Cal Fire. “We have a good working relationship here in San Diego…they’re responsible for all the SRA watershed land, and that’s where this comes from, given the fact that the majority of our district is SRA because of the watershed component of it.

“They are responsible for all the vegetation, but we’re responsible for homes and the management of fire prevention to make sure that those homes are safe from any type of wild and urban interface fire that comes around,” he said. “We have a great partnership with Cal Fire; the local units have been very helpful and assisted us whenever we needed it.”

Residents under the protection of the RSFFD already pay for the department’s services through a portion of their property tax and through a benefit fee that was imposed in the ‘80s.

“Cal Fire, along with every department really at State government has taken a lot of budget reduction in the last year-and-a-half,” Berlant said. “We’ve seen our budget reduced approximately $80 million in just the past year-and-a-half. And so we’ve made some major reductions.

And this fee is critical right now because it creates a stable funding source for fire prevention and public safety,” Berlant said.

The Board of Equalization will collect the fees.

Residents can file a petition of redetermination if they believe they were billed incorrectly, or they believe they’re not within SRAs, or if they differ in the number of habitable structures that they were billed for.