Yolo County inches toward contract withdrawal

By WES SANDER

Capital Press

As annual deadlines loom in California for renewal of Williamson Act contracts, counties face a decision: Begin the non-renewal process, or shoulder the act's financial burden for another year?

In an ominous step toward withdrawal from the popular farmland-conservation program, Yolo County has told its landowners it may drop their contracts next year. The county in late September sent letters to landowners, saying it may start the non-renewal process by year's end.

"We may have to take that drastic action," said county spokeswoman Beth Gabor. "It's an awful lot of money to us."

Through the four-decade-old Williamson Act, the state pays subventions to local governments -- money that compensates for property taxes lost when they enter contracts with landowners to preserve farmland in exchange for lower tax assessments.

In July, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed funding for the program along with 20 others, after theLegislature approved a budget with a reserve fund that he deemed too small. He left $1,000 in the $35 million subvention account, signaling that the cut is temporary.

Yolo County's subventions have hovered around $1.3 million in recent years -- a significant sum for a county with low tax revenues, Gabor said. The letter to landowners followed an Oct. 7 event in Woodland at which officials and politicians assured anxious residents that withdrawal was a real possibility.

"We wanted everybody to be aware of where we're at," said county agriculture Commissioner John Young. "There's nothing worse than being surprised."

Other counties have yet to warn of non-renewals. And with the state's finances showing little promise of improvement, uncertainty lingers over whether Schwarzenegger will restore the act's funding in his 2010-11 budget proposal.

The governor's proposal faces a January deadline, which offers help to some counties. The Williamson Act contracts contain anniversary dates of either Jan. 1 or March 1. A county must notify landowners 60 days in advance and can cancel the non-renewal during that period.

Yolo County's contracts are up in March -- so officials can wait for the budget proposal before making a final decision.

Counties that must decide by January, meanwhile, are mostly signaling that they'll absorb the loss of subventions next year. Re-instating contracts later would cost thousands of man-hours, said Ryan Jacobsen, director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

Facing the Jan. 1 anniversary date, Fresno County has likewise declined non-renewal.

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