HJTA to appeal court ruling dismissing fire-tax lawsuit
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association plans to appeal today‘s decision by the Sacramento Superior Court dismissing their legal challenge against the state’s past collection of a “fire prevention fee” from rural homeowners.
“Dismissal of this case was an abuse of discretion and rewards the state for creating delay,” said HJTA’s Director of Legal Affairs, Tim Bittle.
HJTA has been fighting the state’s fire prevention fee on two fronts since it was first imposed, suing in court and lobbying in the Legislature. Approximately 800,000 rural property owners living in State Responsibility Areas (SRAs) have been assessed an annual fee of up to $152.33 per habitable structure. Because most property owners in the SRAs receive no service or benefit for it, HJTA contends that the fee is actually an illegal tax which needed, but did not receive, a two-thirds vote in the Legislature.
HJTA’s lobbying efforts in Sacramento paid off earlier this year when the Legislature agreed to suspend the fee and instead fund fire prevention with revenue from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which is funded from the state’s Cap-and-Trade Program. But HJTA argued in court that its lawsuit did not become moot because the court could still award refunds for thousands of property owners who paid the fee under protest.
On Monday, the judge used her discretion to side with the Attorney General and dismiss the case, even though the case had been presented to the court for disposition on the merits the preceding Friday. The case was fully briefed and HJTA lawyers had filed hundreds of pages of state budgetary evidence showing how fee revenue was being spent, together with 600 affidavits from rural property owners testifying that they paid the fee but received nothing in return for it. The Attorney General’s office had filed its opposition papers as well, which represented a significant investment of taxpayer dollars. Despite this, the judge decided to not read or rule on the briefs and evidence. Instead she dismissed the case on the grounds that it should have been set for hearing sooner, ignoring an earlier ruling that, due to its complexity, the case was exempt from any specific deadline.
“In the first two years, the state kept the case tied up in procedural motions,” Bittle said. “Then it fought our ability to represent all payers as a class. Then it insisted we publish notice of the case in 19 different newspapers. Finally, it buried us in over 12,000 pages of discovery responses which took months to read and sort in order to find the hidden evidence that proved our case. And now the Attorney General complains that we waited too long? That’s crooked.”
“We don’t want to say it’s a rigged system,” said HJTA president Jon Coupal. “But we will appeal this ruling as a bizarre miscarriage of justice and we will continue to fight for the refunds that are owed to rural Californians for this illegal and now suspended tax.”