It’s unclear whether some 16,000 residents in Santa Barbara County will get back the money they paid for the new state-imposed fire prevention fee, but the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to craft a strongly worded letter of concern to Sacramento.

Property owners in unincorporated areas of the county started receiving bills for the new fee to cover the prevention and suppression of wildfires. Although the law was enacted in July 2011, it didn’t raise the ire of local governments and affected residents until after the bills were sent out.

The law levies a fee per habitable structure, which is designated as a building that can be occupied for residential use, and does not affect properties within incorporated cities or in federal ownership, according to firepreventionfee.org.

What has angered many people is that the $90 million generated from the fees will offer no additional services. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Forestry and the Board of Equalization, which alleged that a fee must provide specific services; otherwise, it must be imposed as a tax.

The board stopped short of sending a formal letter of opposition or joining a lawsuit until questions about the fee are answered.

At the request of 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr – whose offices have been inundated with calls about the fee – Capt. Robert Lewin of Cal Fire and county Fire Chief Mike Dyer attended the board meeting to discuss the State Responsibility Area fire prevention benefit fee.

Lewin told board that money used from the collection of fees, ranging from $115 to $150, for habitable structures will provide a stable funding course for fire prevention, replacing money once apportioned from the state’s general fund.

“You won’t see more fire engines, you won’t see more work,” Lewin told the board.

The money is meant to help Cal Fire prevent fire ignitions or blazes from spreading from or into homes, communities and wildland areas through such measures as brush clearance around communities, roadways and along evacuation routes, as well as defensible space inspections, fire breaks and public education, Lewin explained.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill X129 into law in July 2011. Bills from the state Board of Equalization started entering mailboxes last August, though Santa Barbara County residents began receiving bills last month. About 31 million acres of land fall within the State Responsibility Area, which comprises state and privately owned forest, watershed and rangeland.

The county Fire Protection District provides fire protection for the SRA under a contract with Cal Fire, which qualifies local residents for $35 discounts per habitable structure. Only five other counties contract with Cal Fire statewide to provide fire protection without duplicating resources.

Farr complained that the state imposed a flat fee on property owners without considering the relative risk of a wildfire to different areas of the county. “To have people billed that live in urban areas far from the fire land interface is very discouraging and causes a great inconsistency that has people upset,” she said.

Farr said she was concerned about the “capricious nature about who gets charged and who doesn’t.” She questioned why an apartment building is assessed an individual fee, regardless of how many units it contained, while a condominium complex is billed for each owner. She also questioned why commercial buildings, which are at the same risk as homes, are exempt from the fee.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that we’re paying for a dead horse here,” Farr said. “We didn’t have any opportunity to comment, any opportunity to tweak it, or to support a better way to go. So people are now paying this fee without realizing this is for the past year and they’re going to get another bill.”

Lewin told the board that the SRA map is not up for review until 2015 and acknowledged that there have been and could be more mistakes with regard to the mapping, including levying fees for non-habitable structures (including two wells) and miscalculations of the number of habitable structures on a parcel.

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said the fee was a “maneuver in Sacramento to pull money out of Cal Fire to fill a budget gap in the general fund,” but she warned against sending a letter of opposition because Cal Fire’s services could be undermined if the Legislature did not backfill its budget. The Democrats in the Legislature could use their two-thirds majority to introduce a tax measure, but it could come at a high political cost.

“Before we take any significant action, I want to make sure we know what we’re getting into,” she explained. Wolf added that she heard about an emergency regulation regarding SRA areas last year but assumed any new costs associated with it would be covered by county fire. “I do feel a sense of responsibility for not having followed this at the inception and not taking more of a role in understanding this,” she said.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino urged county counsel to look into the practicality of joining the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association’s lawsuit – which hasn’t yet become a class-action suit. He also suggested the county consider formally supporting a bill introduced by state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, to repeal the fire fee.

County supervisors urged affected property owners who dispute the fee to file a Petition of Redetermination with the state and pay the fee to avoid penalties.

Once the letter of opposition is drafted by staff, the board will discuss it in January before sending it to state officials. Board members also asked its legislative committee to further evaluate the fee and post a link on the county website instructing homeowners how to appeal.