WATSONVILLE, Calif. -- New information on allegations that Cal Fire hid millions of taxpayer dollars, instead of depositing it into the state's general fund.
The allegations surfaced after an investigation by the Los Angeles Times. The Times claims Cal Fire hid $3.6 million from legal settlements, but the department denies any wrongdoing.
This all comes after some rural homeowners were forced to pay a fire prevention fee last year. Cal Fire said those hundreds of thousands of homeowners will still have to pay the $115 to $150 yearly fire prevention fee.
That's because Cal Fire said these are two different funds. But homeowners told Central Coast News they don't care. They've been fighting the fire fee and they're not stopping now.
"I understand that they're there to protect the people that live in their houses, and their houses are on fire, but good Lord for $150 fee per year, I think that's extortion," said Bill Leach of Watsonville.
Leach showed Central Coast News letter after letter he wrote to lawmakers, demanding Cal Fire reverse the fee it implemented last year.
Beside the fact he and his wife don't have the money to pay the fee, it's more about principle for Leach.
"The people did not get to voice their opinion and I think that they just go ahead and take this money from us and adding to their kitty," he said. "I think they're robbing us."
And now with the L.A. Times claiming Cal Fire hid millions, Leach said that's even more reason he should be let off the hook.
Although the fund was frozen amid questions of its legality, Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire spokesman, denied any wrongdoing.
"We've done our own audit, and now we are welcoming the Department of Finance's audit as well to provide that independent look at this fund," he said. "But, again, the intent of this fund is not what's at question. It's just the procedural piece of it. And, again, we had this same question. That's one of the reasons we froze the account in the first place."
Berlant said the fee is for fire prevention work, while this $3.6 million were for training and equipment for fire investigations. Two different funds, meaning homeowners will have to fight harder if they want to avoid the fee.
The fee is for people who live in rural areas that rely on Cal Fire services.
Berlant said homeowners can only fight the fee through what is called a "petition for redetermination" if they think they were billed on accident, or incorrectly, otherwise they can't fight the fee.
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