Struggling annually to balance the county’s budget, the Colusa County Board of Supervisors will consider reducing the property tax breaks given to farmers for preserving their land for agriculture uses.
Supervisors plan to hold a public hearing later this month to decide on whether to move forward to implement AB 1265 – provisions that were set forth in 2011 that allows counties to recapture some of its revenue losses from property enrolled in Williamson Act contracts.
The California Land Conservation Act of 1965, also known as the Williamson Act, was established as a three-way partnership between landowners, counties and the state to keep farms in operation and maintain open space from urban sprawl, wherein landowners agreed to forgo the possibility of developing their land during contracted terms of 10 to 20 years in return for lower property taxes, officials said.
“It’s a state program to preserve farmland and prevent conversion of farmland to non-agriculture uses,” said Greg Plucker, Community Development director.
Colusa County has about 318,000 acres enrolled in Williamson Act contracts, of which 59,000 are enrolled in the 20-year program.
Plucker said California counties once received reimbursements from the state for the lost tax revenue (a kickback of about $856,000 per year for Colusa County) until the state eliminated the reimbursements in 2009 and shifted financial responsibility to local jurisdictions.
“As a result, the county’s general fund has been making up that lose of $856,000 in revenue since that time,” he said.
Colusa County has had the option since 2011, from legislation co-authored by Sen. Jim Nielsen to recapture a portion of tax revenue they would otherwise receive by reducing the term of 10-year contracts to nine years, and reducing 20-years contracts to 18 years.
An ad hoc committee of Supervisors Denise Carter and Gary Evans recently met recently and determined the county should implement the AB 1265 provisions, which would allow the county to recapture at least 10 percent of the lost property tax from property owners, while over the next year doing a comprehensive review of the entire Williamson Act program.
Plucker said the assessor has estimated that by participating in the AB 1265, Colusa County would receive $358,000 in property taxes that could be spent on other services provided to the public.
Plucker said the 550 Colusa County farmers in the Williamson Act program would still receive about $3.2 million in tax savings annually from the program.
Farmers can access a property tax savings calculator on the county’s website or by calling the assessor’s office to find out what taxes would be owed if the county opts into the AB 1265 process.
Following a comprehensive review of the program, the county may opt out of the program entirely, although the majority of the board maintained tax benefits to farmers supports the local agriculture economy by keeping farmland restricted to agriculture uses.
Supervisor Merced Corona, however, said he did not see how giving $3.2 million in tax relief to farmers (after the AB 1265 process) benefits the general public and taxpayers as a whole, and felt that most commercial growers would continue to farm even if required to pay the full taxes they owe.
“We have to pay taxes; everybody pays taxes,” Corona said, speaking on behalf of the “everyday taxpayer.”
County officials said that while it is true that tax relief to farmers under the Williamson Act means a loss of revenue that could be spent on other services, most said they do not want to jeopardize the local agriculture economy by upending the program entirely.
Plucker said the AB 1265 process would provide additional revenue while keeping the county in the Williamson Act program. Yolo, Sutter, Butte, and eight other agriculture counties have already implemented the AB 1265 process to recapture lost tax revenue, he said.
A public hearing on the possibility of contract changes is scheduled for 9:30 AM, on Aug. 27, in the Colusa County Board of Supervisors chambers. ■