Supervisors back bill seeking more transparency on `Fire Tax' expenditures

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - The Board of Supervisors today endorsed a proposal that would require Cal Fire to clarify how revenue generated from the so-called ``fire tax'' is being spent and get to the bottom of why Riverside County's not in line to receive ``a significant piece'' of the $43 million surplus carried over from last year.

The board's 4-0 vote, with Supervisor Chuck Washington absent, was made at the request of Chairman John Benoit, who said the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection needs to submit a ``better accounting'' of how the fire prevention fee enacted as part of Gov. Jerry Brown's 2011 deficit control plan has been used.

``Technically, it's a fee, but when most people pay it, they call it a tax,'' Benoit said. ``There's $43 million sitting in an account that's not properly used. Riverside County should get a significant piece of that. Some of it ought to come back here.''

Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, introduced Senate Bill 1136 in the interest of compelling the forestry board to detail all of the outlays that have been funded using fire tax revenue.

According to the legislation, Cal Fire's summaries of how funds were expended between 2012 and 2015 fell short of providing the public with sufficient information.

SB 1136 would require an ``itemized accounting of expenditures for each program and subprogram'' supported by the assessment until Jan. 31, 2021. Under current law, Cal Fire can cease issuing financial summaries come January 2017.

``We need a better accounting of the funds,'' said Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, a former firefighter. ``It's government, and we've got to be the squeaky wheel to get money back to the taxpayers.''

According to county Legislative Affairs Director Brian Nestande, the owners of 32,000 homes countywide have to pay the annual assessment, which is currently set at $152.33 per habitable dwelling.

Cal Fire said roughly 850,000 residents spread across 56 counties make annual payments. The assessment applies to ``state responsibility areas'' serviced primarily by Cal Fire and was implemented on the premise of funding operations in out-of-the-way places.

Funds are supposed to be earmarked for building defensive space around properties, eliminating excess vegetation that fuels wildfires, drawing up ``fire hazard severity mapping'' and creating emergency evacuation plans for rural communities, according to a Senate report.

Morrell said the tax brings in about $74 million in annual revenue.

There have been several Republican-led attempts to rescind it over the last four years, all of which were defeated.

A lawsuit challenging the assessment as an illegal tax, which the plaintiffs argue should have required a two-thirds vote by the Legislature for passage, is pending.

SB 1136 is currently under review by the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

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