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Granite Bay residents confused, angry upon receipt of fire fee

By: By Scott Thomas Anderson and Amber Marra, Gold Country Media
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Residents across Placer County have been finding an unwanted surprise in their mailboxes — a fire protection bill causing confusion over which agencies are levying the charge and which firefighters are protecting specific neighborhoods.

The bill is especially perplexing for residents of Granite Bay.

Over the last week, hundreds of county residents received an advance notice for a soon-to-come charge of $150 from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CALFIRE. The fee was passed by the Legislature last year and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown to raise $84 million in its first year alone for fire-prevention, including thinning brush and trees around homes.

Property owners who own inhabitable structures within the 31 million rural acres covered by Cal Fire have to pay the annual fee. Thirty-five dollars can be knocked off that amount if a property owner already pays fees to a local fire protection district. This is the case for Granite Bay residents, who already pay $70 a year to the South Placer Fire Protection District for expanded fire coverage.

Placer County residents who live in incorporated cities, such as Auburn, Roseville and Rocklin, will not have to pay the $150 fee, according to Auburn Fire Chief Mark D'Ambrogi. That has been the main source of confusion judging by the phone calls to local fire agencies recently. Some residents have gotten the advance notice and not understood why: Others who are covered by the Auburn Fire Protection District haven't gotten one and have called their local fire department wondering when they will receive a bill or a notice when none is on the way.

The problem has been equally frustrating for South Placer Fire Chief Lawrence Bettencourt.

“Residents across the entire north end of our district are getting this charge from the state,” Bettencourt said. “Now, I’m getting calls from people who don’t understand why they have to pay CALFIRE when they already paid a fee to South Placer Fire. What I point out is that the South Placer Fire fee is truly for more services. With the CALFIRE fee, it’s just a fee — it doesn’t pay for any additional services.”

Bettencourt has also heard residents who misunderstand the state bill to be a sign that South Placer Fire District no longer protects their homes and property.

“We’ve got people who have seen this bill, and then looked at us, thinking, ‘You’ve got a fire station a block from my house, but if there’s a fire you’re not coming?’” Bettencourt said. “We want to clear up the misunderstandings. If there’s a fire in our district, we are coming, because CALFIRE dispatches out of north Auburn.”

Problems associated with the CALFIRE fee recently led the South Placer Fire Protection District to pass a resolution protesting it, calling the law that created the charges “ill-conceived” and “based on misinformation.” In objecting to the fee, the South Fire Protection District pointed out that the fee was passed “without benefit of legislative hearings,” public comment or a public vote. 

Once residents who are targeted to pay the fee receive their technical bills from CALFIRE, they have 30 days to pay before getting hit with a penalty to the tune of 20 percent, plus interest. 

Another development bound to get ratepayers’ attention is the fact that the current fee is for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. An identical bill is slated to go to the same residents in April for the current budgetary year.