The Backdoor Tax

An envelope marked “Urgent Notice” arrived in the mail last Friday. The return address said: State of California. Inside were four identical slips of paper with “Advance Notice” boldly printed across the top. Advance Notice for the bill that will soon follow from the state Board of Equalization; a bill for $150 for every habitable structure on the Macdonald Ranch.

This is the amount due for the new California Fire Prevention Fee. The four notices apparently mean that the State of California thinks there are four habitable structures on this property. That’s what I was told when I called the 888-310-6447 number listed on the “Advance Notice.” I asked how the state arrived at the conclusion that there are four habitable structures on this property and was informed that aerial photography was used to determine those numbers. I further asked if the aerial photos were from the age of Google Earth or the photos taken for USGS (United States Geological Service) maps, many of which go back several decades. The website seemingly does use a Google Earth style map, but there has only been one habitable structure on this property for the last 20 years. The thoroughly collapsed cabin that once belonged to my Uncle Charlie (uninhabitable since the early 1970s) might be mistaken from the air as a second abode, but not four structures.

As of now the state believes there are 763,000 habitable structures within the State Responsibility Area (SRA) in California. When I attended grade school SRA was a color coded reading program. Now it is the millions of acres in this state that lie outside of incorporated towns and cities and their fire department districts.

Discerning readers, of course, are thinking: what about our volunteer fire departments? The State of California has got your back and got you by the short hairs at the same time. Don’t you love politicians! If your habitable structure resides within the SRA, but is also within the boundaries of a volunteer fire department, the fee will be reduced from $150 to $115, per habitable structure.

The only colors of seeming importance to the state are red, for the fires that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire) is responsible for putting out, and green, for the greenbacks the state hopes to collect to offset the costs of fighting fires in non-incorporated areas.

If the state’s count is off as badly overall as the four for one mistake here at the Macdonald ranch, our government is in for a fiscal surprise. The inability to properly count habitable structures is only the tip of the nonflammable iceberg. Remember that the key phrase to this fee is “habitable structure.” Next, recall who owns the vast majority of lands within the SRA. In Mendocino County the answer isn’t who but what, as in corporate timber. Mendocino Redwood Co. alone owns well over 200,000 acres in this county, almost all of it within the SRA fire prevention zone. How much of Mendocino Redwood’s 200,000 acres of timberland has habitable structures on it — practically none. Can you say 1% vs. 99%?

On a national level the Republican Party has become the blind supporter of the super rich, but California’s fire prevention fee was passed by a legislature with a Democratic majority and signed into law by a Democratic governor.

A side note: Governor Brown’s wife, Anne Gust, served for years as the general counsel and executive vice-president of Gap Inc. The Fisher family, which controls Gap Inc. also owns Mendocino Redwood Company.

4 Responses to "The Backdoor Tax"

  1. Trelanie Hill   September 26, 2012 at 11:25 am

    Cal Fire determines the dollar amount of providing service and then divides that amount by the number of structures.

    If the conclusion is that the number of structures is over stated by a factor of 4 then the only solution is to increase the the fee by a factor of 4. Instead of $150.00 the fee will become $600.00

    That’s how fees work. They are not taxes because they are the reimbursement of actual government cost to provide the service.

    School impact fees, sewer hookup fees, build a new courthouse fee, and now fire protection fees.

    The governments’ answer to Prop 13.

    Jim Hill
    Potter Valley

    • wineguy   October 2, 2012 at 7:23 pm

      time for a new ’13! eliminate ‘fees’ make them put it up for a vote of the taxpayers before sending a bill

  2. Malcolm Macdonald   September 27, 2012 at 8:24 am

    The reader is a bit naive.
    The word tax does not appear in the body of the piece. The term “backdoor tax” was added later, presumably by the editor. That is how newspaper stories are published.
    The new fire prevention fee is not based on how many structures are on a given number of acres or per parcel, the fee is simply based on how many structures are on a given property owner’s land (whether the property is one acre or thousands of acres the fee is still $150 per habitable structure). This creates two problems: 1) errors in counting the number of habitable structures 2) vast amounts of corporate timberland which are protected by Cal Fire have next to no habitable structures on them, hence very small fee payments by very large corporate timberland owners.

  3. wineguy   October 2, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    You can give thanks to Chesbro,Brownie and Huffman they rake in $200K/yr diem/car/expenses etc and they want us to cough up more dough for the bloated Fire People, who will never ever see this $,,,massive rip off, impeach Brownie now, Chesbro/Huffman will find another hole in the Sacto beehive to hide out when they are termed out..California is going down the tubes and taking the few taxpayers left down with it…


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