The Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved the Riverside County Fire Department’s request to attach fire mitigation charges to the tax bills of more than 300 property owners who officials say have not paid the cost of abating weeds and other potential fire hazards around their parcels.
“We have to recover our costs. We’re not trying to pad our General Fund here,” Supervisor Chuck Washington said ahead of the 5-0 vote.
According to the fire department, 327 property owners in communities countywide are delinquent and owe a total $178,530 under the county’s Fire Hazard Reduction Program. The amounts stem from activity in calendar year 2020.
The reduction program involves deploying contractors to clear weeds and related overgrowth that might otherwise fuel brush fires during wildfire season, which generally spans May to November. In most cases, the parcels that were mitigated were vacant, set off from main residences and near roads that might be threatened during wildland blazes, according to the fire department.
Officials said property owners were served with orders to abate, or mitigate, the potential hazards, and when inspectors received no reply or saw that no action had been taken within a 30-day period, landscaping contractors were sent to the locations under fire department authority to clear away the excess foliage.
“The purpose of the Fire Hazard Reduction Program is to reduce or eliminate fire hazards created by vegetative growth and the accumulation of combustible debris, which poses a danger to the health, safety and welfare of the residents in the vicinity of any real property, as well as irreparable harm to sensitive habitat and species,” according to an agency statement.
Properties in each of the five supervisorial districts were identified by the fire department as delinquent on payments.
Board Chairman Jeff Hewitt asked officials whether any of the overdue payments had been resolved prior to the hearing, and a departmental spokesman said five individuals had initiated talks with the agency.
According to documents posted to the board agenda, delinquent property owners were billed anywhere from $254 to $3,159 per property. A $254 administrative fee was also folded into the final invoices sent to the property owners.
The charges will now function as tax liens on the properties.
Last August, Supervisor Kevin Jeffries expressed concern that the fire department had not moved forward with revising its appeals process to address mistakenly imposed charges.
“There have been cases in the past where it was not the actual property owner who was abated, but a party with a parcel next to them,” Jeffries said. “So the wrong parcel was cited in the assessment. There hasn’t been an appeals process for an improper assessment.”
Officials assured Jeffries that the agency was making progress in amending the current process to ensure errant assessments are dealt with prior to reaching the board.
The issue was not raised again during Tuesday’s hearing.