Farm Bureau sues to block new, illegal property tax
» February 25, 2004 «
Acting on behalf of thousands of property owners around the state, the California Farm Bureau Federation has sued to block collection of an illegal tax imposed by the state Legislature in the waning days of the Gov. Davis administration.
In a lawsuit filed today in Sacramento County Superior Court, the California Farm Bureau, the El Dorado and Mendocino County Farm Bureaus and four individual plaintiffs seek an injunction to prevent the new taxes from being assessed.
The taxes, called "benefit fees" in the legislation that authorized them, were imposed in a budget trailer bill adopted by the Legislature last September. The bill, Senate Bill 1049, was signed into law by Gov. Davis in October, just days after he was recalled but before Gov.-elect Schwarzenegger took office.
The Farm Bureau lawsuit describes the assessments as illegal taxes, in part because they did not receive the two-thirds vote required under constitutional amendments passed by California voters as Propositions 13 and 218.
"These real property 'fees' … are a gross violation of the constitutional rights of all California property owners subject to these new taxes," the lawsuit says. "In fact, it is hard to conjure up a single statute that has ever violated more provisions of Propositions 13 and 218 than this one, or otherwise more blatantly ignored the express dictates of the citizens of California contained in those propositions."
The lawsuit says the Legislature imposed the taxes in order to replace a $50 million cut in the General Fund budget for each of the 2003-04 and 2004-05 fiscal years. The challenged law requires a flat "fee" of $35 on each real-property parcel located in so-called State Responsibility Areas from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2004. An additional $35 would be assessed the following year.
The law requires each county tax collector to assess and collect the "fee" on property owners at the same time and in the same manner as those property owners are assessed for real property taxes. The fees are levied to cover purported "fire suppression costs."
The State Responsibility Areas include approximately 31 million acres of rural land, or nearly one-third of the total land area of California.
"Thousands of Californians will be blindsided by this new tax," said California Farm Bureau President Bill Pauli. "Many people likely don't know that they own property within a State Responsibility Area. Many will receive multiple bills for multiple 'administrative parcels' listed on county assessors' records."
Although the new "fees" began to be incurred on Jan. 1, property owners will not begin receiving those tax bills until this summer, the Farm Bureau says, prompting it to act now to block the assessments.
"These 'fees' are clearly illegal real-property taxes," Pauli said. "We understand that the state faces a budget crisis, but trampling over California law and silently slipping in new taxes is not the proper way to solve the problem. Our lawsuit will prevent public money from being wasted to implement this unconstitutional tax."
The lawsuit names as defendants the state of California and 56 of the state's 58 counties. Only two counties-San Francisco and Sutter-do not contain any land in State Responsibility Areas.
"The law we are challenging says the new 'fees' aim to offset costs of protecting structures from fires, but property owners will be assessed regardless of whether their property contains a structure, the value of any structure, where the property is located or whether the property owner already pays local fire-protection costs," Pauli said.
In a separate action, the Farm Bureau has challenged new water-rights fees imposed by the State Water Resources Control Board. In a petition filed with the board earlier this month, the Farm Bureau said those new fees also constitute unlawfully imposed taxes.
"We want to break this pattern of new taxes before it starts," Pauli said. "State lawmakers need to follow the law, and the law says new taxes must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or by voters in their counties."
The California Farm Bureau Federation is the state's largest farm organization, representing more than 89,000 members in 53 county Farm Bureaus.
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