SACRAMENTO -- A taxpayer group, joined by plaintiffs throughout California, filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking to block a fee that is being assessed on more than 800,000 property owners to raise money for fire prevention.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is seeking a declaration about whether the fee is valid and seeks refunds for those who paid the fee and filed a claim with the state.
The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, claims that the $150 annual fee being assessed on 825,000 rural properties is actually an illegal tax that required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature rather than the simple majority vote it received in 2011. Targeted property owners began receiving the tax bills in August.
The association's president, Jon Coupal, criticized the fee as an example of what he termed budget "gimmicks" by Democrats who control the Legislature. The fee passed without Republican support.
Coupal noted that Gov. Jerry Brown's 2011 signing message asked lawmakers to clarify the bill's language. They didn't, and the administration began collecting the fee under the provisions of the original bill.
"When this thing is all done, it's going to be a monumental waste of time and money," Coupal said.
The association was joined in filing the lawsuit by 11 plaintiffs from nine counties and hopes to have it certified as a class action. It names as defendants the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which is deciding who will pay, and the state Board of Equalization, which is sending out the bills.
"The fee provides a much needed and a stable funding source to prevent these devastating wildfires, especially like those we've seen this year," responded Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the state's firefighting department. "Preventing fires saves lives and homes and we know that this funding is essential."
The state has sent out about 300,000 bills and received 12,674 appeals so far. Nearly 60 percent of the appeals claim the fee is an illegal tax. Other appeals dispute the number of structures on the property, ownership of the property or say the property is not within the state responsibility area.
So far this fire season the department has spent $148 million on large, out-of-control wildfires that can rage for weeks. That exceeds the $93 million allotted for such fires in the state budget, and the balance will come out of the state's budget reserve.
The two Republicans on the five-member Board of Equalization, Michelle Steel and George Runner, issued statements praising the association's attempt to overturn what they call an unfair and unconstitutional tax.
The fee was imposed on those who own property within the 31 million rural acres covered by the state's firefighting agency, a responsibility area that includes about one-third of the state.
It is expected to raise $84.4 million for the state fire department in its first year. Bills are being sent this fall to more than 825,000 rural property owners, although about 95 percent will receive a $35 discount because they already pay a local fire protection tax.
"It is a tax. Like any other tax it needs to go before the voters," said Steve Buettner, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who lives on three wooded acres near Valley Springs in Calaveras County.
He retired as assistant chief of the volunteer Jenny Lind Fire Department about 18 months ago, and fears the state fee will make it more difficult to persuade local voters to support increased taxes for their fire protection districts.
"People are tired of paying more taxes for anything," he said.
The Office of Legislative Counsel ruled that the charge on property owners is a fee because it directly pays for specific state services. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office recommended that the state collect money from homeowners who directly benefit from the state's firefighting efforts.
The taxpayers association contends that calling the assessment a fee is a way to skirt the provisions of Proposition 13, which requires that taxes be passed by a two-thirds majority.
Coupal said it appears to be the first such lawsuit brought against the state since voters approved Proposition 26 in 2010, which allowed the Legislature to use a simple majority to pass fees that pay for services.
The association contends the fee is inequitable because it affects owners of homes if they are within the state responsibility area, regardless of their fire risk.
Even the fire department in the Mendocino County community of Laytonville is a plaintiff because the fire station qualifies as a "habitable property" under the law. It has a kitchen and sleeping quarters for firefighters.
Yet, "they probably have fire risk covered for their building," Tim Bittle, legal director for the taxpayers association, joked during a Thursday conference call with reporters.
He recommended that property owners pay their full bills on time, then file a protest.
Those who protest may be the only ones to get their money back if the fee is ruled illegal, the association said, although it plans to ask that the state be required to return the money even to those who do not formally object.