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Taxpayers Group Suing: Fire Fees on Rural Santa Cruz County Homeowners

State officials emphasize the fee will help cover the cost of fire prevention for people who live in rural areas, but some lawmakers have criticized the fee as an unfair tax.

If you live in an unincorporated part of Santa Cruz County, in recent weeks you may have received a bill for $150 per habitable structure - the statewide fire protection fee.

The State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee was enacted with the signing of Assembly Bill X1 29 in July 2011, according to Cal Fire.

"The fee is levied at the rate of $150 per habitable structure, which is defined as a building that can be occupied for residential use," Cal Fire officials state on a web page devoted to explaining the fee. "Owners of habitable structures who are also within the boundaries of a local fire protection agency will receive a reduction of $35 per habitable structure.

"This fee will fund a variety of important fire prevention services within the State Responsibility Area including brush clearance around communities on public lands, along roadways and evacuation routes; and activities to improve forest health so the forest can better withstand wildfire."

State officials emphasize the fee will help cover the cost of fire prevention for people who live in rural areas.

But some lawmakers have criticized the fee as an unfair tax, and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the estimated 825,000 residents affected by the fee statewide.

The state began billing residents in August, alphabetically by county, and bills have started going out for the Santa Cruz end of the alphabet.

"San Diego started getting their bills a few weeks ago, so Santa Cruz residents should be getting their bills now too," Kris Vosburgh, executive director Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said Dec. 3 in a phone interview.

"There are 825,000 rural homeowners affected by this and they've been doing it alphabetically by county," Vosburgh said. "We filed the class action suit on behalf of everyone in October.

"We're confident we'll be victorious in the long run, but we've got to get into court," Vosburgh said. "We have received nothing from the courts yet."

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is recommending Santa Cruz County residents who get billed to pay the fee, but write "paid under protest" on the check, Vosburgh said.

"We can't promise we're going to win," Vosburgh said. "We're recommending people go ahead and pay the fee to avoid penalties. But write that phrase on the check, 'paid under protest.'"

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has offices in Sacramento and Los Angeles. Vosburgh is based in L.A.

For more information about the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, visit www.hjta.org.

For more information about the State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee, visit the Cal Fire web page www.firepreventionfee.org.

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