SACRAMENTO — For the first time, California forestry officials intend to give counties and organizations money raised through a contested assessment on property in wildfire-prone areas to be used for fire-prevention projects.
The funds will be awarded as part of a one-time grant process after lawmakers included a $10 million appropriation in the new state budget.
The remainder of an accumulated balance of $48 million raised by the assessment is being held in savings while a lawsuit challenges the legality of the so-called “fire fee.”
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association wants the fee to be declared unconstitutional, arguing it is actually a tax.
Gov. Jerry Brown sought the one-time $10 million appropriation from the State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Fund and is expected to sign the budget in coming days.
The timing of the grants couldn’t be better, said Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman Janet Upton, noting that California is struggling with an ongoing drought that is creating dangerous fire conditions statewide.
“It will be the highest priority,” she said. “We need to get those projects on the ground because conditions are only getting worse.”
The department must solicit bids from counties, local Fire Safe Councils and other organizations for fire prevention projects, she said, adding it is too soon to say when the grants might be awarded and what programs will be funded.
“We think it’s a good first step, especially in light of the drought,” said Karen Keene, a lobbyist with the California State Association of Counties.
Here’s how money is being spent from the fee levied on more than 700,000 state residents:
— About $50 million each year is substituting for money that was taken from the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s budget at the height of the recession to help bridge the state’s multi-billion dollar deficit.
— Another $12 million annually is going to the department for programs including inspecting properties and informing homeowners about the need to clear trees, brush and other flammables from around structures, and to map fire hazards.
— About $10 million each year goes to collecting and administering the fee.
— $4.5 million over three years went to the California Conservation Corps for fire-prevention projects.
The money is collected from owners of private property within the 31 million rural acres covered by the department, or about one-third of the state.
Protests over paying the fee have subsided from about 108,000 lodged the first year it was collected, to 26,000 last year, and 10,800 so far this year after the final bills went out last week.
The department is backing pending legislation that would give property owners a few breaks as the state retains the fee.
AB2048 by Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, would eliminate a requirement that the board annually increase the fee based on inflation. For instance, the maximum $150 fee originally set by the board for each habitable structure rose to $152.33 this year.
The bill would also lower the 20 percent late payment penalty to 10 percent, and permit the board to exempt a property owner from paying if homes on the property were destroyed by a natural disaster during the year in which the fee is due.
The bill was approved by the state Assembly, 77-0, in May and is now awaiting consideration in the Senate.