A little-known fee that will cost most homeowners in Mono County outside of Mammoth Lakes about $150 for every “habitable dwelling” they own will be sent out this June, if a last minute appeal to the law doesn’t work.
Called the State Responsibility Area (SRA) fee, the fee has passed through the state Legislature as a way to offset the cost of the state’s CalFire (CalFire used to be called California Department of Forestry) program. It’s intended to be leveraged against any “habitable dwelling” on any property that is not either U.S. Forest Service land or land within the borders of an incorporated city.
Mono County property owners with more than one habitable dwelling will receive a $150 fee for each dwelling, with some exceptions that will allow a slight reduction in the bill (see sidebar, below).
The fee is wildly unpopular in most rural counties where it will hit the hardest, said Mono County District 2 Supervisor Hap Hazard, who has been sounding the alarm over the law to his constituents and fellow supervisors for the past year.
“This could cost some of my constituents, your constituents, thousands of dollars, say if they have a ranch house and some employee housing on a parcel of land, say for a business like Tom’s Place. Look at all the habitable dwellings they have,” he said.
It’s going to be a real hardship during a time when people in the county are already suffering from a rotten economy and terrible winter season, he said.
On top of that, the state only gives property owners 30 days to pay or appeal the fee. And the fee, ostensibly designed to go into a fund that will help protect property owners from catastrophic fires, don’t appear to Hazard to be set up to put the money where it is most needed; to the people fighting the fires. Rather, it goes to “planning and administration” he said (for a complete list of where the money goes, see sidebar).
Hazard isn’t the only one up in arms over the SRA fees. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a California tax watchdog group, has vowed to challenge the fee the moment it is assessed and in the mailbox of property owners, stating that it is a tax that requires a two-thirds Legislature vote and/or a vote by the people of the state.
What is the State Responsibility Area (SRA)?
State and privately-owned forest, watershed, and rangeland for which the primary financial responsibility of preventing and suppressing wildland fires rests with the State. The SRA definition can be found in PRC 4126: http://law.onecle.com/california/public-  resources/4126.html
Why is the State Responsibility Area Fee important?
The fee provides a stable source of funding for a portion of CalFire’s budget spent on fire prevention activities. These vital activities are aimed at reducing the increased risk of fire ignition and fire damage within the state’s wildlands that the presence of structures can pose as outlined in the law: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/11-  12/bill/asm/ab_0001-0050/abx1_29_bill_20110630_enrolled.pdf
Who is assessed the SRA Fee?
A fee assessed on all habitable structures within State Responsibility Area (SRA), which is roughly 800,000 buildings within 31 million acres across California.
What is a habitable structure?
Defined as a building used or intended to be used for human habitation. Includes, but is not limited to, a mobile home or manufactured home.
How much is the fee?
$150 per habitable structure per year—an average of $12.50 per month per structure.
What if I’m also protected by another fire agency?
The fee is discounted $35 per habitable structure if the structure is within the boundaries of a local agency that provides fire protection services. In these cases, the fee will be $115 per habitable structure. Most structures within the SRA fall within this fee category.
What about apartments?
The apartment building is assessed the fee for the structure but not multiplied by each unit. Example: One apartment building would pay $150.
What about condominiums?
In a condominium complex with multiple owners, each owner would have a corresponding parcel number and, therefore, each condominium unit would individually be assessed the fee.
Are ALL structures assessed the fee?
The fee is not assessed on all structures. Barns, woodsheds, outbuildings, and other structures not used for human habitation are not assessed the fee.
What is fire prevention?
The work done to prevent a fire from igniting. This includes activities like brush clearance, defensible space inspections, fire breaks and public education programs. A portion of the fee may also be used to fund the extraordinary efforts taken by CalFire to prevent the expansion of wildland fires during emergency situations.
How will the fees be collected?
The Board of Equalization is charged with collecting the fee. It is anticipated the fee will be a stand alone bill much like the Vehicle Registration Renewal.
What’s the next step?
The Board of Forestry & Fire Protection is in the “Permanent Regulation” process which includes a 45 day public comment period.
How do I find out if a home is in SRA?
Visit the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection’s website and click the “State Responsibility Area Viewer” http://www.bof.fire.ca.gov/sra_viewer/
What will the $150 pay for?
(1) The portion of the Benefit Fee for administration of the Benefit Fee collection program by the Board of Equalization, Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and Board of Forestry and Fire Protection shall be $15.
(2) The portion of the Benefit Fee to support inspections conducted by the Department or its duly authorized agent, pursuant to PRC §4119, shall be $10.
(3) The portion of the Benefit Fee to support Fire Hazard Severity Zone mapping by the Department in State Responsibility Areas shall be $5.
(4) The portion of the Benefit Fee to support the Department’s pre-fire engineering program shall be $15.
(5) The portion of the Benefit Fee assessed for a habitable structure located on a parcel in an area designated by the Department as a high or very high fire hazard severity zone shall be $20.
(6) The portion of the Benefit Fee to support the grant program shall be $25.
(7) For parcels containing three or more dwelling units, the fee shall be based on 14 CCR § 1665.6(b), items 1-6 for the first unit, and $25 for each additional unit.
The law also allows some reductions in the fee:
(a) Property owners may receive a reduction of $10 if the county in which the property is located has adopted the following:
(1) “Fire Safe Regulations” certified by the Board or the Board’s “Fire Safe Regulations” pursuant to 14 CCR § 1270, et seq.
(2) A “Safety Element” in the County General Plan that has been certified by the Board, pursuant to Public Resources Code § 4128.4.
(b) Property owners required to pay a local fire protection fee, that supports a local fire prevention program, may receive a reduction of $45.
(c) Property owners whose habitable structures have been inspected by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and who have received a current notice of compliance with Public Resources Code Sections 4291, and 14 CCR § 1299, may receive a reduction of $10. For the purposes of this section, a current notice of compliance means one that is four years old or less.