Fire fund inequity

Why do urban Californians pay so much to protect the rural few?

News item: Just two months into fiscal year 2009-10, California’s state government has already spent about $107 million of the $182 million budgeted in the emergency firefighting fund. Gov. Schwarzenegger surely is casting one of those bittersweet, I-told-you-so looks across the Capitol, because setting up a $500 million reserve for natural disasters was one of the reasons he gave for the line-item vetoes that members of the Legislature have started to undo.

What disturbs us more than this latest harbinger of red ink is the system behind it. CalFire gets funding from taxpayers statewide, but a relative few actually gain direct benefit from the service. Most of us get our fire protection from our municipal fire departments. Only people who live in outlying areas rely on CalFire to respond to blazes threatening their homes.

We are happy to pay our share for preserving our forests, but why should we also bear the brunt of the expense for people who opt for a rustic existence? Shouldn’t a surcharge or parcel tax be part of the cost of their lifestyle choice?

Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee thinks so. In a column last week, he declared that “it’s high time to end the free ride that rural residents and landowners receive.” We agree. They should pay more for their own well-being. In doing so, they not only would address the firefighting fund’s deficit, they could also enable CalFire to fortify its forces.

Ironically, some of the biggest opponents of this idea are Republican lawmakers from inland—i.e., wildfire-area—districts. They say the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, yet they have no qualms about authorizing large sums for CalFire without asking their constituents to pay their fair share. Talk is cheap; firefighting isn’t.