Counties face hard decisions as state funds are denied
By WES SANDER
SACRAMENTO -- Proponents of California's defining farmland-preservation law, the Williamson Act, are trying to rework its funding as they face the prospect of permanent program cuts.
As expected, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on May 14 proposed keeping the program unfunded in the 2010-11 state budget. He first enacted the cut last summer, then in January proposed holding to it for the coming fiscal year. His May revised proposal offered no change.
Those lobbying for the Williamson Act Program still hope they can restore at least some of that funding. But that means designing a dedicated revenue stream and weaning the program from the state's general fund, which has dwindled as tax revenues shrank during the recession.
Through the four-decade-old Williamson Act, the state pays counties "subventions" that compensate for much of the property-tax revenue lost when they enter contracts with landowners to preserve farmland in exchange for lower tax assessments.
Schwarzenegger axed the subvention fund in July. He had proposed doing so before, but lawmakers saved the program by agreeing to a compromise cutting the $35 million subvention fund by 20 percent to $28 million.
But when lawmakers later sent him a budget that he deemed too big, Schwarzenegger vetoed the fund along with several other programs.
Bill Geyer, a Sacramento lobbyist and executive director of the Resource Landowners Coalition, has spent the past few months collecting ideas for a funding change.
Geyer said Schwarzenegger's office has offered the possibility of program restoration for the next two years if stakeholders can produce a plan that would take effect thereafter. One idea would put cancellation fees back into the subvention fund, Geyer said.
But nailing down a plan could take time. Most of the required data sits hidden in county records, having never been collected and vetted for the purpose.
"But many of the numbers we need just haven't been pulled together by anybody," Geyer said.
Counties have spent much of the past year warning landowners that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to preserve Williamson Act contracts without the state subventions payments.
Imperial County in Southern California has initiated non-renewal, a nine-year process that is difficult to reverse. Some counties have warned of the possibility of doing likewise, or have stopped taking contract applications.
Kathy Mannion, legislative advocate with the Regional Council of Rural Counties, said that without the subventions, counties face the difficult prospect of cutting basic public services.
"It's very difficult when you're looking at keeping sheriff's deputies on patrol and guards in the jails and keeping the foster (youth) programs alive," Mannion said.