EL CAJON — Eugene and Joanne Antoine’s Deerhorn Valley home of nearly 30 years burned to the ground in the 2007 Harris fire.
Without the money to rebuild, the couple bought a mobile home and put it on their land. Eugene died in 2011, leaving Joanne, now 77, to pay the bills on her fixed income.
Those include a $150 bill known as the State Responsibility Area Fire Fee, which is assessed in rural areas such as Deerhorn Valley. The fee has encountered criticism from some residents who say it is unfair. About two dozen people attended a meeting on the fee Thursday in El Cajon sponsored by Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee.
“I just think it’s wrong to have a tax without people voting on it,” said Antoine, who was among those in attendance. “They call it a ‘fee,’ but it’s a tax. We’re already paying a fire fee and then our property tax is supposed to be for fire and police protection, too.”
The state has offered $35 credit to those who already pay into a local fire district. The fee was established in 2011 to pay for fire prevention services in rural regions defended by Cal Fire.
Along with Jones, Greg Griswold, a local Cal Fire representative, and Julie Hutchinson, a Cal Fire battalion chief out of Riverside, took questions and explained the latest news about the fees and how the lines have been drawn to map out the state responsibility areas.
Hutchinson told residents the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection will hold a public hearing May 8 in Sacramento to propose changes to the maps. There have been thousands of complaints about inconsistencies.
David Shaw, who lives in unincorporated El Cajon, made a presentation with maps and notes showing inconsistency in Monarch Ridge, a gated community in which some of the residents are within the boundaries, and some are not. Shaw and some of his neighbors have been billed; others in the same complex will not have to pay the fee.
Shaw said communications with CalFire personnel, asking for explanations about the haphazard way he and his neighbors are charged, or not charged, went without answers that satisfied him.
"Can you imagine going to the DMV, standing in line being told yours is $150, and the next person in line, his fee is zero?" he asked. "That's just not right."
The May 8 meeting in Sacramento will allow those affected to connect with the state about the issue, Hutchinson said.
"We still have a lot to go through," she said. "We know the frustration of where those lines are. Sometimes they don't make sense. SRA lines area always driven, based in place of the financial responsibility of the state to pay for wildland fires."
CalFire conducts reviews of maps to capture changes in land use, areas that become more dense through development and other relevant changes, according to information left for constituents about the coming hearing.
Residents can give their input through U.S. mail, fax or by email.