Taxes may increase to fight Calif. fires

November 18, 2008 6:27:22 PM PST
In addition to the personal losses, these latest fires have cost tax-payers a fortune to fight. It's an astronomical amount of money that the state juggles every year with some questionable accounting. Some believe California is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

In less than a week, Cal Fire says it has spent $23 million on fighting the recent fires in Southern California alone. In general, costs are going up because fire seasons here are longer now.

"We have more people in the wild land areas, we are protecting more structures these days, as well as high cost of firefighting with the increase in fuel costs, labor costs, and our aerial program," said Dan Sendek, a Cal Fire spokesman.

California traditionally under-budgets firefighting and relies on budget reserves to make up most of the shortfall.

This fiscal year, lawmakers allocated $69 million, but four months later, the state has already spent almost $305 million. The same happened last year, $82 million was allocated, but firefighting costs broke records at $518 million. And those memorable firestorms of 2003 blew the state's $70 million budget out of the water.

Just before Governor Schwarzenegger enacted the state budget two months ago, he used his blue pencil to cut half a billion dollars from social programs.

"We knew we were coming into another bad fire year, and so the Governor wanted to use his line-item veto authority to build that budget reserve up as far as he could, with the use of his blue pencil," said H.D. Palmer, from the California Department of Finance.

But critics say cutting programs to build up reserves, that's ultimately used for firefighting, is not fair. Seniors were hit especially hard in the last round of cuts.

"Obviously, we don't want to see anybody's house burn down. That's not the goal, but we also don't want seniors losing a senior legal hotline, for example, where they can solve their consumer complaint problems," said Mike Herald, from the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

To avoid more cuts while keeping pace with the rising costs of disaster response, Governor Schwarzenegger will once again push for an extra fee levied on home owners. It'll amount to about $12 a year, perhaps added onto property insurance premiums.


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