The following articles by Ruth Gottstein have been published in the Upcountry News.
THE STATE LEGISLATURE PASSES A CYNICAL FIRE FIGHTING FEE STARTING SEPT. 1, 2011
I have had great difficulty writing this column because I am so angry...and therefore have postponed it until I was up against my publishing deadline...amd I am still angry.
The issue I am addressing is one of the most cynical pieces of legislation I have ever witnessed, and I am 89 years old, a lifelong registered Democrat. In my opinion, what I am about to describe was passed because those voters living in rural, eastern California areas are mainly Republicans, and therefore, there would be little political fallout as a result to the legislators supporting the governor's budget.
So what's the issue? The governor has called for "...a new, $150 annual state fire protection fee for rural areas." Under a plan approved by the California Board of Forestry and Fire Protection (which is the state board responsible for rural areas), CalFire will be authorized to charge upward of $90 annual fire prevention fees to the estimated 850,000 rural residents living in these "state responsibility areas". This is scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1, 2011. The fact that no one knows better about our fire dangers than we who actually live here is seemingly unknown even to our local legislators. Over generations dating back to the Gold Rush, we have created multiple fire districts with paid staffs and volunteer fire fighting organizations, and have voted to pass special sales taxes to fight fires, as in Amador county's Measure M. How is it possible that the legislature was either unaware of our own ongoing fire fighting programs--or just didn't care?
Yes, some of California's general taxes do apply to our "state responsibility" areas. But state taxes are never applied evenly. For example, if that were the case, there would be toll booths along the freeways to tax those drivers who actually use them daily. We who live in remote, rural counties rarely ride them. Perhaps in our "naiveté", it doesn't occur to us that therefore some of the money we pay for state taxes should not be spent on maintaining and developing freeways.
I perceive this fire fighting issue as one of cowardice--the legislature is going after the most vulnerable citizens--easy pickings. I haven't read anything about the legislature asking the federal government to increase fire protection funding for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land which surrounds us. Or, asking Sierra Pacific Properties--the second largest landowner in the United States--to come up with fire fighting funds for their land which is also surrounds us. The legislature obviously knows these attempts would be futile.
Easy way out, legislature?
The state of California is being "Balkanized." Whatever do I mean by that? Well, if you look up the term in Wikipedia, you will read "...a geopolitical term, one used to describe the process of fragmentation or division of a state into smaller regions or states, that are often hostile or non-cooperative with each other." And therein, you have a perfect description of the fire tax (AB29X) which has been imposed on rural counties throughout the state by the urban-based California legislature. The California Board of Forestry & Fire Protection is responsible for the adoption of permanent regulations regarding the State Responsibility Area Fire Fee (SRA). I am not going to write further about the history of how the tax was imposed (even if in its cowardice the legislature called it a "fee" because it would not have been legal to impose a "tax") --except to say that as of 10/12/12, $16 million dollars has already been collected--and that's not counting the anticipated revenue from counties following Plumas (the collection is being made alphabetically by counties). The state legislature expects to raise about $85 million annually from the tax from more than 846,000 homeowners who live within more than 31 million acres of "state responsibility areas". The whole issue of fire prevention services that already exist in this huge area--some even dating back to the Gold Rush--has been totally ignored.
But back to the legislature. Its power is vested in urban votes, giving it the right to make decisions for the entire state--and no state has greater power--and diversity--than California. Forgive me for going into the following statistics, because they are the key to "Balkanization." We are the third largest U.S. state in square miles, and we have the highest population and GDP of any other state. At the same time, we are incredibly diverse, when you think in terms of deserts and mountains, farms and cities, suburbia and coasts. We are the number one state for food production--on a global level, we are the fifth largest food provider in the world.
At the same time, California citizens are experiencing the same poverty which is happening all over the country. According to a recent census, one of six Californians is living in poverty. How can those of us rural folks living with that economic reality come up with the sudden tax with big penalties, because an urban legislature told us we had to?
Sadly, it's my opinion that this "Balkanization" of California is just beginning. If you want to see it changing elsewhere, watch the news for Scotland (and perhaps Ireland) as they prepare to leave England after hundreds of years.
As faithful readers of my column know, I have been writing about the unbelievable fire "fee" (about which the governor has not ruled out revising the tax structure--and changing the way people are taxed...thereby turning the "fee" into a "tax" and transferring it to the general fund). Why would he do this? To block a law suit challenging the legality of the fire fee, which is going to be brought by Howard Jarvis.
What are the financial stakes? As of this writing on Nov. 21, according to the Fire Fee Weekly Report from the State Board of Equalization, the money already collected amounts to nearly $35 million dollars. To clearly understand the significance, that money has come in from counties which have already been alphabetically billed. Currently being billed is Santa Cruz county, and after that the following counties will be billed--Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou, Solano, Stanislaus, Tehama, Trinity, Tulare, Tuolumne, Ventura, Yolo and Yuba. And, this money is being collected from people, one of six according to current census reports, are living in poverty.
The annual tax will be billed to you again in 2013. Enough said--I have not heard of any significant pushback, and as your faithful columnist, I know when to give up on a subject. If you want to see my already published October column on the fire tax in which I characterize this kind of extraordinary financial discrimination as "Balkanization of California"--let me know.
This is going to be a short column. It's already past my publishing deadline, and now I head to the kitchen to prepare the stuffing for the turkey to be served tomorrow to a wonderful family. Two sons, four grandkids with assorted spouses and "others", three great grandkids, not to mention a daughter-in-law out of the country at this moment, and a dear friend.
I hope your Thanksgiving in any form or number or location was good for you, and for us all.