At least some residents of Calistoga’s senior mobile home parks have received notices saying they would be billed later this month for a new $150 rural fire protection fee, despite the fact that they are safely inside the city limits and should be exempt.
Calistoga Fire Chief Steve Campbell told City Council members Tuesday night that he had heard reports of the billing notice from several residents and had checked with CalFire officials to find out what was going on.
“They did make an error,” Campbell said. “The notices were sent to mobile home parks in Napa as well.”
The fee was passed by the state earlier this year to help defray the cost of fighting fires in remote, isolated or rural areas. It was intended to apply only to structures in unincorporated areas, not those under the protection of city-based departments.
Campbell said residents who had received the notice could contact CalFire’s Capt. Jon Lovie at 967-1424.
“We did send the letter to the wrong people, unfortunately. ... It’s just a big ‘oops’ on our part,” Lovie said, although he said he was not sure what state agency was responsible for the database snafu.
He said he had received similar complaints from exempt mobile home parks in the city of Napa and in Sonoma County.
It’s not clear how many people received the notices, Campbell said. Nor is it clear if the residents will receive the actual billing statements, which were supposed to be mailed out as early as this week.
Either way, the notices have sent a wave of alarm through the mobile home parks, which have been rocked by battles over rent increases in recent years, said Calistoga Springs resident Wynne Wilson, who brought the matter to the attention of the council on Tuesday.
The notice warned that the fee would have to be paid within 30 days after the formal bill arrives or the residents would face steep penalties, she said. With many residents on fixed incomes, the $150 fee would be difficult to pay.
She said she called a number listed on the notice and was told she would have to fill out a lengthy application to ask to be exempted from the fee, despite the fact that the mobile home parks are clearly inside city limits and exempted from the fee.
“Please help get CalFire off our backs,” she said.
Councilmembers reacted with outrage, promising to call state officials first thing on Wednesday to get the matter straightened out.
They expressed particular annoyance when Campbell mentioned that residents should call Lovie to learn about the process of being exempted from the fee.
“It’s going to take more than one phone number and one guy on the phone” to straighten this out, Councilmember Gary Kraus said.
Vice Mayor Michael Dunsford said the city should make clear that the fault for the mistake lies entirely with the state and that the park residents should not have to do anything.
“Basically they should take care of it on their end,” he said.
Lovie, however, said he did not know if there was any way for the state to revoke all of the erroneous bills. He said the best process was for each resident to send a letter explaining that they should be exempt. He said he could guide callers through the process.