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Don’t Shift Liability and Cost to Cities for Wildfire Damage in Our Communities

Yountville Mayor John Dunbar Testifies before Joint Committee

July 26, 2018
Yountville Mayor John Dunbar testified before the Wildfire Preparedness and Response Conference Committee during its first hearing on July 25 to urge members to carefully consider any policy that would shift new liability to cities or make it harder for cities to collect damages caused by wildfire.
 
With last year’s unprecedented extended wildfire season and the fires burning this year, there has been increased focus on fire safety and prevention. Legislators introduced more than 70 bills this year to address fire-related policies and earlier this month, Senate President pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) convened a 10-member joint conference committee to work on the complex issues related to wildfires.
 
Sen. Bill Dodd (D-Napa) and Assembly Member Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), chairs of the committee, opened the hearing by outlining the issue and setting the stage for a discussion about wildfire patterns, prevention and damages. Prior to public comment, legislators heard experts on three major topics:
  • Wildfires, Utilities and Climate Change;
  • Ensuring a Safe and Reliable Electric Grid; and
  • Recent Fiscal and Policy Actions on Wildfire Response and Recovery.
League Leadership on Fire Issues
 
The League is part of a coalition that has called on the Gov. Jerry Brown and Legislature to increase funding for fire prevention, resiliency and preparedness and mutual aid in this year’s budget. The policy discussion currently underway in the Capitol addresses these issues plus the question of liability and who is responsible for bearing the costs of damages caused by fire.
 
The Governor on July 24 released a proposal that would change the liability standard for all utilities, bolster wildfire mitigation planning for investor-owned utilities, and update the California Public Utilities Commission authority to assign penalties to investor-owned utilities. While the League is still reviewing this proposal, the organization generally opposes changing the liability rules.  
 
Under the current law of inverse condemnation, if a utility is found to be the cause of a fire, it pays for the damages resulting from that fire. The rule comes from the Taking Clauses in the federal and state constitutions and it applies to government entities as well. The League supports maintaining the standard of inverse condemnation for investor-owned utilities that requires utilities to pay damages. The League opposes reducing the inverse condemnation standard for incidents caused by a utility, whether retroactive or otherwise, and supports ensuring local governments can recover applicable damages.
 
Representing the League at this week’s hearing, Mayor Dunbar took the opportunity to talk with legislators about the fiscal implications to cities from changing the current liability rules.
 
“Asking local governments to shoulder new costs when our cities and residents are the victims of catastrophic disasters is not the right policy decision. It is critical that the committee understand the implications of shifting liability to cities making it harder for us to collect damages resulting from fires caused by utilities,” explained Mayor Dunbar.
 
Next Steps
 
This was the first in what is expected to be a series of informational hearings held by the conference committee. While the date of the committee’s next hearing has yet to be set, legislators return for the final few weeks of the legislative session on Aug. 6 and work on these issues will continue.


 
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