Comments Before the California State Board of Forestry

May 16, 2012 at 10:00AM
County Administration Center

Thank you for traveling to San Diego to hear directly from the people harmed by this tax.  I appreciate the opportunity to address your board.  

I respectfully request that your board exempt San Diego County from this tax.  I realize that your board has the administrative responsibility of implementing this tax. I realize you cannot comprehensively undo what the Legislature has done.

But, you can give the people of their region their due relief. My goal is today is to help you understand exactly what the Legislature completely ignored when it approved this unfair tax in the final days of the 2011 budget season without the benefit of hearings or public comment.

As your board is well aware, San Diego County is intimately familiar with catastrophic wildfire. The destructive firestorms of 2003 and 2007 garnered a lot of national media attention. And yet, wildfire is a way of life in our rural backcountry.

There have always been wildfires. There will always be wildfires. It’s the manner in which our region responds to those wildfires and other emergencies in the State Responsibility Area that’s different.

The language of the legislation that enacted this tax justified the tax with the following sentence: “Individual owners of structures within state responsibility areas receive a disproportionately larger benefit from fire prevention activities than that realized by the state’s citizens generally.” 

Let me tell you why that language is wrong and why the Legislature’s reasoning doesn’t hold true in San Diego County. 

Our County has a distinctive, integrated fire protection system in the SRA. Since 2003, our County has worked hand-in-hand with CAL FIRE to dramatically upgrade this network.

Each year, San Diego County commits $15.5 million to augment rural fire protection in vulnerable communities. Two-thirds of this money— $10.2 million— goes directly to CAL FIRE for the SRA. This $15.5 million… money from San Diego County taxpayers… keeps 50 rural stations open all day and all night… every day of the year.

The $15.5 million is just the beginning. Since 2003, County government has committed more than $230 million toward rural fire protection.  Local taxpayers have paid to clear brush in the SRA. Local taxpayers have paid for new brush rigs, water tenders, and engines that serve people in the SRA.

Local taxpayers have paid to upgrade the internal emergency radio network that benefits first responders in the SRA. Local taxpayers have paid to create evacuation plans for people who live in the SRA. Local taxpayers have purchased two firefighting helicopters that serve people in the SRA.

In fact, San Diego County is so connected to CAL FIRE that the Chief of the San Diego County Fire Authority and the San Diego Unit Chief for CAL FIRE are the very same person. That’s how inseparable our agencies are.

It’s not just County government that’s interwoven into our regional network. Many people who live in the SRA have made a personal economic commitment to better fire protection… a commitment beyond their ordinary property taxes.

Many SRA residents have already assessed themselves for enhanced fire protection, some paying as much as $400 annually.  In total, every year over $15.1 million in voter-approved taxes goes toward fire protection in the SRA. 

So, we have folks paying for fire protection via their property taxes. They are also paying for fire protection via special assessments. Now, they are being asked to pay a triple tax. That would be a huge injustice… particularly when their local government— the County of San Diego— has made rural fire safety its chief priority over the past decade.

Your board has the ability and the information to do what the Legislature would not. That is, give San Diego County credit where credit is due. Our government and our SRA citizens have already paid and we will continue to pay what’s fair and equitable. This tax is not fair or equitable. It is arbitrary and desperate. 

A very narrow segment of the population— many who’ve endured both the 2003 and 2007 wildfires— are being asked to bear a triple financial burden because of the Legislature’s inability to adequately fund fire protection, a core public service. 

Unlike the Legislature, San Diego County has not turned its back to CAL FIRE. Now, we’re hoping your board won’t turn its back to San Diego County.