The Colusa County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 last week to reduce the terms of California Land Conservation Act contracts as a way to make up for some of the county’s property tax losses that result from landowner participation in the long-running agriculture and open space preservation program.
The board, following a public hearing on Aug. 27, exercised their right under Assembly Bill 1265 to reduce 10-year Williamson Act contracts to nine years and 20-year Farmland Security Zone contracts to 18 years, beginning Jan. 1, 2020, in order to recapture about 10 percent of the property tax savings currently afforded landowners who agree not to convert their farmland to non-agricultural uses for decades at a time.
The state-run Williamson Act program has been in place since 1965 in order to reduce urban sprawl, preserve agriculture, and maintain open space by giving participating landowners a significant break on their property taxes, officials said.
Greg Plucker, Community Development director, said reducing the terms of the contract by 10 percent would allow the county to recapture about $358,556 in lost revenue annually – or 42 percent of the $856,000 the State of California previously reimbursed Colusa County for participating in the program.
“Countywide, these property owners would still be receiving over $3.2 million in tax savings annually,” Plucker said.
Supervisor Merced Corona voted against the reduction in contract terms, advocating instead for the non-renewal of all Land Conservation contracts in the county’s jurisdiction, which would put a full $3.6 million in property tax revenue annually into county coffers.
“It’s property taxes that should be collected,” Corona said. “I just don’t see it as a fair and equitable thing to the people.”
During the public hearing, however, farmers and ranchers said that once again agriculture production is being held responsible for California’s failure to keep their side of a bargain that farmers, themselves, are obligated to uphold, thus putting Colusa County in the middle.
“My signature meant something to me,” said rancher Mary Wells, who said local, state, and federal government continue to place significant burdens on farmland, including reclamation and water-right fees, water-quality fees, groundwater sustainability fees, and a host of other regulatory costs that have gone up on each acre of farmland, including land that is less productive than the valley floor.
“They are all noble causes, but nevertheless come back to that one acre of land,” she said. “It kind of equates to what I call fiscal or financial subsidence of that acre. The burden just keeps getting larger and larger.”
Despite agriculture improvements, particularly the development of the almond industry in the valley, which have afforded the county increased revenue in recent years, Wells said there has been little revenue changes on rangeland, which has long benefited from Conservation Act contracts.
“That’s the ground that is going to really be hurt by this,” Wells said. “The benefit we receive from the reduced taxes on rangeland is very important to me as it allows us to continue to operate a viable enterprise. I realize the state has done this…but how much more can we take of this? It’s incremental, incremental, incremental.”
Although the Colusa County Board of Supervisors balanced the county’s budget last year using reserves, and anticipates a number of cuts (including funding for vehicles, ambulance services, and public safety) when they adopt their final 2019-20 operating budget later this month, the majority of the board felt complete elimination of the Williamson Act could result in substantial upheaval in the county’s agriculture economy, resulting in job loss and the reduction in the exchange of goods and services.
Since the state eliminated subvention payments to counties in 2010, only Imperial County, to date, has fully exited the Williamson Act program. Santa Clara County non-renewed 11 percent of its contracted lands, and 11 counties, including neighbors Sutter and Butte, have shortened the length of the contracts by 10 percent in order to recapture 10 percent of the participating landowners’ property tax savings.
Local farmers who spoke last week at the public hearing said even a 10 percent tax increase in property taxes would put a heavy burden on agriculture production, particularly now that landowners are being taxed significantly to pay for other regulatory programs and increased tariffs.
The hearing also brought out opposing philosophies on “tax-and-spend” policies.
Dan Charter, Colusa County tax collector, said the county should address its budget deficit by reducing the size of government, not increasing taxes on farmers and ranchers who produce the food and goods the world cannot live without.
“The Williamson Act is a reduction in taxes to preserve open space,” Charter said. “All improvements, including irrigation and trees are still taxed 100 percent. When these contracts were signed, the county did not have half the bureaucracy it does now. Get rid of the bureaucracy and honor the Williamson Act contracts. This is not a gift to the farmers and ranchers.”
Jennifer Roberts, of Arbuckle, however, encouraged the board to reduce the Williamson Act benefits to farmers in order to expand government services that address general wellness and food insecurity among women.
“I appreciate the regulatory and tax burdens placed on our farmers and ranchers and I believe that their operations are vital to this county,” Roberts said. “At the same time, I do not believe this county is doing very well.”
Roberts said Colusa County ranks among the highest counties in the state for poor outcomes for women, including high unemployment and income insecurity.
“We are doing poorly, really poorly,” she said. “To have people going hungry in this county is shocking and really disturbing.”
Although Roberts felt increasing property taxes by reducing the Williamson Act contracts is the way to put money into county’s coffers for this purpose, County Administrative Officer Wendy Tyler said the increase in revenue would not go toward public welfare programs (funded by the state), but likely to address the existing budget deficit on services rendered by the Sheriff’s Office and other General Fund departments.
Despite opposition by Corona, who felt the Williamson Act is outdated and all contracts should be allowed to term out, Supervisors Denise Carter, John Loudon, Gary Evans, and Chairman Kent Boes voted for the reduction in contract terms to recover some lost revenue while preserving the Williamson Act, which Evans said helped create a vital agriculture economy in Colusa County to begin with.
“This allows us to keep our foot in the door for when, not if, the Legislature and governor agree to fund what they said they would do and we go back to normal,” Evans said. “If we go some other route toward nonrenewal, then it is game over. I don’t want to see us go down that road.” ■