A state fire prevention account has ended recent fiscal years with tens of millions of dollars unspent despite bone-dry conditions across much of California's wildland area.
The state ended the fiscal year in June with an estimated $43 million in fee money left over for fire prevention, the Sacramento Bee reported Sunday.
The state collected more than $300 million through June from more than 800,000 property owners who pay a fire prevention fee. Most of them pay $117.33 a year for each habitable structure.
The money has been generated by a contentious, four-year-old fee pushed through by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats over the objections of Republicans and rural property owners.
Statewide since January, more than 5,300 fires have torched almost 300,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The toll would have been worse without activities and projects funded by the fire prevention fee, state officials said.
Yet they said they have proceeded cautiously in spending the prevention fee money because they were not sure how much money the charge would bring in.
"Given the fact that it's a relatively new fund, there's not a long track record on receipts. We do want to maintain a prudent reserve for unforeseen circumstances," Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who sits on the budget subcommittee that oversees Cal Fire, rejected the idea that the fire fund's large reserve reflects prudence.
"They're hoarding it," he said. "What for, I don't know."
Some have suggested the state may have one eye on the courts, where it is fighting a lawsuit filed by critics who contend the fee is an illegal tax.
In August, a Sacramento County judge elevated the case to class-action status, and a trial date is expected next year. If the state ultimately loses, the fee revenue would disappear and the state would face refunding an estimated 12,000 property owners eligible for the class.
Refunding five years of fees to landowners who filed a required protest would cost more than $7 million. Nevada County Supervisor Hank Weston, echoing a common belief, said he thinks the large balance in the fire prevention fund reflects officials' concern the state will lose the case.
Weston, a former Cal Fire unit chief who pays the fire prevention charge, said there's no excuse for all of the unspent money in the fund.
"Statewide, they're collecting $75 million (a year), during one of the worst droughts, in one of worst fire seasons, and the best thing would have been to add a bunch of inspectors. They didn't do that," Weston said.