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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mow your lawn get a check, CAL FIRE pays large landowners to maintain property

 El Dorado County leaders question supervisor's fire prevention reimbursements

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By Richard Chang

El Dorado County Supervisor Ray Nutting is under fire after reports surfaced that he took state money for clearing brush on his 340-acre property.

Several local leaders in recent days have spoken out against Nutting, whom they accuse of subverting state funds for personal use.

"I want the public to know that the Board of Supervisors is not going to sweep things under the rug," Supervisor Ron Briggs, the board's chairman, said Friday.

At issue is whether Nutting legitimately obtained taxpayer dollars for fire prevention work he did on his own Happy Valley Road property in Somerset.

Nutting has denied any wrongdoing, adding that he will release new information this week to clear his name.

"The accusations and political spin these people are putting on is absolutely incorrect," Nutting said. "I had no clue this had gone political."

The supervisor, a Republican, applied for the funds through the California Forest Improvement Program, which is administered by the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection through local conservation agencies. Under the program, landowners with plots between 20 and 5,000 acres can seek reimbursement – usually 75 percent – for the cost of fire prevention work, such as brush clearing.

The invoices Nutting submitted show that the state paid a total of $70,000 for two projects in 2003 and 2009. A third proposal is pending and will cost just under $50,000.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant noted that the program allows landowners to get paid for doing work themselves on their own property.

"Our ultimate objective is stopping or slowing down fires," he said. "It doesn't matter whether you do it yourself or hire a contractor."

One controversy stems from the way Nutting applied for reimbursements. A May 2009 invoice appears to have been written by the supervisor himself, according to public records obtained by The Bee.

El Dorado County Auditor-Controller Joe Harn said he believes the invoice is invalid and violates the California False Claims Act.

"This appears to be an intentionally misleading bogus document," Harn said. "You don't submit an invoice to yourself."

This isn't the first time red flags have been raised about the legitimacy of reimbursement requests submitted through the program.

Following an audit, the state Department of Finance issued a recommendation in December 2009 calling on the Sierra Coordinated Resources Management Council – the local agency in charge of distributing the grants – to "require landowners to provide cancelled checks, bank statements or other appropriate evidence for claimed costs."

"Without proof of actual costs by landowners, grant funds could be use for purposes not allowed by the program," the department wrote.

Since then, Cal Fire has asked the Sierra Coordinated Resources Management Council to require detailed receipts for all reimbursement requests.

In addition, Berlant said other checks and balances exist to prevent fraud, including a final inspection by Cal Fire officials before payment is made to the landowner.

As a part of the fallout from the controversy, the El Dorado County District Attorney's Office has launched its own investigation into the matter. The DA declined to comment on the case Friday.

The state has reimbursed property owners for fire prevention work since the late 1970s, Berlant said.

Since 1999, the state has distributed about 1,000 grants for fire prevention work to various individuals. The funding source varies year to year, but most recently came from Proposition 40, a measure passed by voters in 2002 that provides local grants to protect California's water and air.

"It doesn't matter who you are as an individual," Berlant said, noting that there is nothing precluding elected officials from taking the money. "This is a mutually beneficial program that helps landowners and the state reduce fire risk."

Source: Sacramento Bee

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****REMINDER**** Every fire has the ability to be catastrophic. The wildland fire management environment has profoundly changed. Growing numbers of communities, across the nation, are experiencing longer fire seasons; more frequent, bigger, and more severe, fires are a real threat. Be careful with all campfires and equipment.
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