An annual fire-prevention fee that is unpopular with some rural property owners is headed back before the state Legislature, as Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to expand its use and opponents try to kill it.
The fee was imposed for the first time last year and helps fund CAL FIRE, the state's firefighting agency. It has run into two new hurdles in recent weeks that are feeding criticism and uncertainty about its future.
First came a disclosure that the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) funneled money from wildfire damage settlements into a special account instead of the state treasury.
That revelation was followed by an opinion from the Legislature's legal counsel that the department is improperly using some of the new fire fee revenue to collect damages from those who maliciously or accidentally start fires, instead of its intended purpose.
The news prompted a state audit, led Republican lawmakers to call for a federal investigation and bolstered the hopes of an anti-tax organization that is suing over the way the fee was enacted.
Department spokesman Daniel Berlant said there was no intent to hide $3.6 million in wildfire settlement money that was placed in an account kept by the California District Attorneys Association. Most of the money was used to buy digital cameras, radio scanners and other equipment, and for conferences to train county prosecutors and fire investigators.
The department provided documents it said show state officials were told about the fund, unlike the parks department where officials deliberately hid $20 million from lawmakers and the governor.
A February 2010 email to the Department of Finance, state Assembly and Bureau of State Audits has an attached memo outlining 10 financial and management issues facing the firefighting agency. The Wildland Fire Investigation Training and Equipment Fund at the center of the dispute is addressed in four paragraphs on page seven of the 10-page memo.
A 26-page internal audit of the account also was posted on a public website in 2009, four years after the fund was created.
Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said the existence of the fund was not widely known, and officials are now auditing the account.
Putting money from wildfire settlements into an account overseen by the district attorneys association is like playing "shell games with the public's money," said Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced.
He is chairman of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, which plans a hearing on the shift.
Republican lawmakers sent Brown a letter two weeks ago demanding that he ask a federal prosecutor to investigate. The administration is still working on a response.
"It damages the credibility of the agency," said Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association President Jon Coupal, whose organization is suing to overturn the new property fee. "This smacks of the same issues that tarnished the parks department."
As revenue from the new fee on rural property owners comes in, the state fire department is using a portion of it to pay for 24 employees who collect damages from those who start wildland fires. Brown has proposed using $3.7 million from the fees to fund that program permanently, but the legality of that move also is being challenged.
The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Counsel concluded that using the rural property fee to investigate and prosecute those who start wildfires violates the state constitution because there is no direct benefit to the property owners paying it. The fee ranges up to $150 a year and is assessed on nearly 800,000 property owners.
Republican lawmakers have introduced at least five bills to repeal or restrict the new fee.
Meanwhile, the administration wants the Legislature to amend the property fee so the money collected can be used for fire-prevention efforts in areas that border the regions where the fee is assessed.
That bill would require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and officially turn the fee into a tax. The property fee was approved on a simple majority vote in 2011. Its opponents argue in their court filings that it actually is a tax that required a two-thirds vote by the Legislature.
"It's just another tax," said Vince Cal of Greenwood as he recently took time out from mowing his lawn in the tiny Sierra Nevada community 50 miles northeast of Sacramento.
"Prop. 13 was supposed to stop all that; now they put another name on it," he said, referring to the landmark 1978 property tax initiative.
Democrats now have two-thirds majorities in the Legislature and could make the legal challenge moot if they voted with a supermajority to redefine the assessment as a tax. That wouldn't matter to Darnell Olszweski, a single mother who lives in the foothill community of Garden Valley and sees no problem with an extra assessment for those who willingly live in wildfire country.
"It's for our protection, and I don't see why not if it is going for a good cause," she said.