Firefighting Fee Criticized As New Tax – Riverside County/S.D.

firestorm-2.jpg As far as some conservatives and taxpayer watchdogs in San Diego and Riverside counties are concerned, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger crossed the line Thursday when he proposed a 1.25 percent fee on home and business owners’ insurance premiums to fund firefighting efforts. “They can play the semantics game all they want,” said Scott Barnett, a former Del Mar councilman and president of “But the governor should stop playing games. He is clearly reneging on his pledge not to raise taxes.”Barnett was echoed by a Riverside County supervisor. “Why don’t we call it what it truly is? It’s a tax,” said Supervisor Jeff Stone. At the same time, longtime critics of San Diego County fire protection programs welcomed the proposal as a way to boost the region’s firefighters and their tools, after they were overwhelmed by the October wildfires. In San Diego County, which accounted for 71.4 percent of the acreage burned, those fires torched 368,000 acres, killed 10 people and destroyed 1,750 homes and businesses. “I’m absolutely thrilled that the governor has finally identified fire protection as a key priority for him and the state of California,” said former San Diego fire Chief Jeff Bowman, who resides in Escondido. “I think what he did was extremely brave. For a Republican governor to talk about a tax, and you can call it what you will but it is a tax … to me it is commendable.” Bowman said that like anyone else, he doesn’t want to pay higher taxes. But he said the roughly $11 a year state officials say the typical homeowner would pay under the fee would be worth the investment in more robust fire protection. Schwarzenegger administration officials say the fee, which would be assessed on insurance policies for all properties in California, not just those on the city’s edge, would generate $125 million a year. The state spends about $1 billion annually on fire protection. State officials said they would use the extra cash to hire more firefighters and buy 11 helicopters. Given that San Diego County voters have repeatedly balked at taxing themselves deeper to boost the area’s firefighting arsenal, UC San Diego political science professor Steve Erie said the fee plan could turn out to be only politically practical way to add reinforcements to the local fire attack. “But it also sends the wrong signal —- that we don’t need to do anything ourselves,” Erie said. “My fear is that it will give us down here a false sense of security.” Bowman said the county’s reluctance to tax itself could hurt its ability to reap its fair share of any added revenues for fire support, because other Californians have agreed to increase their taxes. “Other counties spend a lot of money every year to make sure they have adequate fire protection and this county doesn’t,” Bowman said. “They’re going to want to know why they are being asked to bail out San Diego County.” Indeed, such discrepancies mean passage is far from a foregone conclusion. “There will be an odd coalition opposing it,” Erie said. “It will be conservative anti-tax Republicans and urban Democrats who think they are already paying full freight.” One of those anti-tax Republicans, Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries of Lake Elsinore, said his concern is not just a new levy but what the money will end up being used for. Jeffries called the fee “nothing more than a shell game” that will be used to help balance a budget that is an estimated $14 billion in the red. “It is extremely unlikely that taxpayers will see any increased staffing or equipment as a result of this massive new tax,” he said. Stone, the county supervisor, said there is plenty of reason to believe the money would go for another purpose. Right after Californians approved Proposition 42 in 2002, to dedicate sales taxes on gasoline for roads, state lawmakers raided the new fund to pay for other programs, he said. “They always set these funds up for other situations, so that they can steal them when they are short,” said Poway Mayor Mickey Cafagna, whose community was hit hard by fires in 2003 and last year. Other officials, however, give Schwarzenegger credit for trying to improve California’s firefighting abilities in the wake of October’s $2 billion-plus disaster. “On the face of it, who’s not for enhanced fire protection?” said Temecula Mayor Mike Naggar. “The governor gets a check mark in the positive for that.” Naggar said he would prefer a flat fee, rather than a fee based on a percentage that would penalize owners of large homes. Others have complained it is not fair for everyone to pay for protection that could benefit people in the country more than those in the city. Escondido Mayor Lori Pfeiler doesn’t buy that argument. “It is not just somebody in the backcountry who is at risk,” Pfeiler said. “Fires have shown that they can go all the way to the ocean.” Written By North County Times

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