SOQUEL -- Some residents in Soquel, Aptos and the San Lorenzo Valley opened the mail this week to find they owed the state $115 or more for a new fire prevention fee.
The fee is expected to collect about $89 million to help pay for Cal Fire's rural firefighting services across California. However, some residents said they didn't realize that they would have to pay it if their property was covered by Cal Fire and another fire district.
Chuck Bruffey's home off Maplethorpe Lane in Soquel, for instance, is covered by Central Fire and Cal Fire. He received a bill for $115 on Saturday and wasn't happy about it.
"I'm in the Central Fire district. I don't know why I have to pay for this," Bruffey said Wednesday.
Russell Gross of Ben Lomond received the bill and filed a "petition for redetermination" against it.
"I support the Ben Lomond Fire Department wholeheartedly," Gross said. "They want to call it a fee, it's a property tax. We're supposed to have the right to vote on it."
The fee was born when the state legislature and governor adopted Assembly Bill X1 29 in July 2011.
According to Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant, about 95 percent of the residents who received the bill lived in areas that overlap with other fire agencies. They are charged $115, which is $35 less than the $150 that residents pay in areas only covered by Cal Fire.
Since the state starting issuing the bills in August -- starting with Alameda County and continuing alphabetically -- Berlant said about 4 percent of residents had mailed in a petition for redetermination. The petition is online at www.firepreventionfee.org.
The petition, or protest, could challenge the fee if it was assessed for $150 but should have been $115 because it was in an overlapping fire district.
Also, protesters could show proof that the property is not in a Cal Fire area or that if it had fewer buildings on it than were assessed for $150 each.
There is also a box that could protest the fee for "other reasons," which is what most people have checked, Berlant said Wednesday.
Those petitions will be tossed -- unless a judge rules otherwise -- and those who have not paid will incur late fees and a 10 percent penalty after 30 days of receiving the bill, Berlant said.
In October, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a class action lawsuit against the California Department of Forestry and State Board of Equalization, which collects the fee.
The group argued it was a tax, not a fee, and was unconstitutional. The case is still in court.
"Until the courts make a decision either way, our job is to enforce it," Berlant said.
Berlant added that Cal Fire's budget has been cut by $80 million. and its firefighters fought 1,400 more fires in 2012 than it did in 2011.
About 5,800 blazes charred more than 130,000 acres in 2012, up from 56,000 acres burned in 2011, according to Cal Fire.
The money also helps pay for brush clearing and other fire prevention.
"These are the type of fires we want to prevent," Berlant said. "The money raised is not for new services. It's for the services we're already providing."
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