New Placer County chip charge kindles fire concerns

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Placer County’s chipper service is going from free to $40 starting Aug. 2. But concerns are already being expressed that the new fee will discourage people from clearing brush and keeping their property fire safe. Intended to help property owners remove fire fuels, the mobile chipping service ran into a funding snag last year that forced it to shut down. It started again in January with the free service still in place. With funding uncertainties continuing, work started this year to find a way to make the program more economically sustainable, Placer County Resource Conservation District Manager Rick Gruen said Thursday. What emerged in the spring was a plan that will see property owners “cost-share” $40 of the overall cost of $80, Gruen said. The rest of the cost would be picked up by grants and other funding sources, he said. “The goal is to still offer a low-cost curbside service where landowners won’t bear the full cost,” Gruen said. The Auburn-based Conservation District manages the program, with several county departments – from the Office of Emergency Services to the Placer County Air Pollution Control District – assisting on funding. People place cut brush at curbside. A crew chips it and leaves the material for the homeowner to use as mulch or dispose of. The Sheriff’s Department provides inmate work crews. Auburn City Councilman Kevin Hanley said he’s appreciative of a program that is used by city residents as well as those in surrounding, unincorporated areas of the county. Hanley is a leader in Auburn fire-safe efforts, spearheading a community cleanup this spring in the Robie Point area and planning for similar prevention efforts in other areas of a city that is yearly threatened by wildland fire. “My main concern is whether fewer residents who live in higher fire-danger areas will use the program because of the higher charge,” Hanley said. “The accumulation of wood fuels in the canyon and all over Placer County going east from Auburn is a really serious threat.” Hanley said he’s already heard people saying they won’t use the county chipper service if there is a charge. “My No. 1 priority is for homeowners to clear as much as possible – we’re way behind as it is,” Hanley said. Gruen said the chipping program will provide relief for people who are physically disabled or on low incomes. But rather that develop a hardship criteria specific to the program, it will rely on already established government guidelines. With the disabled, for instance, no charge will be applied for people who qualify for a vehicle placard. Over the past eight years, the program has chipped more than 107,000 tons of wood and brush during 57,000 property visits. The district will be monitoring the response to the new fee and seeing if there is a drop-off in use, Gruen said. The fee can be adjusted upward or downward each year, depending on the amount of grant funding that is expected, he said. And people using the chipper service are also being given the option of paying the full $80 amount – with $40 being considered a tax-deductible donation. “We know that there will be some people who voice complaints,” Gruen said. “But our goal is to be sustainable. It’s feast or famine with grants. The alternative is a program that may not exist in the future.”