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San Joaquin County won’t pass Williamson Act fee on to farmers

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Posted: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 1:08 pm | Updated: 6:37 am, Wed Nov 23, 2011.

Listening to more than a dozen farmers, San Joaquin County supervisors voted 3-0 on Tuesday against passing on what amounts to a tax of up to 10 percent on farmers to compensate for Williamson Act money the state removed from county coffers.

Supervisors Larry Ruhstaller, Steve Bestolarides and Leroy Ornellas voted to postpone a decision for at least a year so that county officials can talk to farmers about economic issues affecting farmers and county government.

The Williamson Act is intended for property owners to keep their land in agricultural production for at least 10 years. The act reduces their property tax to compensate for not being allowed to sell their land to a housing or commercial developer.

County Administrator Manuel Lopez proposed that the county use Assembly Bill 1265, which was adopted by the Legislature this year to allow counties to shorten their 10-year Williamson Act contracts with farmers to nine years. That would require property owners to pay a higher assessed value reflecting the shortened contract, Lopez said.

The change would have resulted in a property tax increase of up to 10 percent for farmers under the Williamson Act beginning in the 2013-14 fiscal year, he added. It would sunset on Jan. 1, 2016.

However, the Board of Supervisors decided against reducing the county's 10-year Williamson Act contracts with farmers to nine years. Had the board approved the measure, property owners would have starting paying a higher assessed value to reflect the shortened contract, Lopez said at Tuesday's board meeting.

"I think this is a ploy by the state to get rid of the Williamson Act altogether," Ornellas said.

Due to budget cutbacks at the state level, the Legislature virtually gutted Williamson Act subventions to participating counties like San Joaquin starting in the 2009-10 fiscal year.

The county stands to lose $2.3 million for the current fiscal year since the state continued its cutback of Williamson Act funding this year. Had the board voted to put AB 1265 into place, the county would have lost only $1.4 million this year.

However, farmers told the board Tuesday that the shortened contract constitutes a tax that would make it more difficult for them to operate their farms.

"You need to send a message that you are a friend to agriculture," Gary Patterson, who farms land in San Joaquin and Sacramento counties, told the Board of Supervisors.

"This board is aware of the ag economy in this county," Ruhstaller said. "The state is very shortsighted when it comes to ag."

Woodbridge farmer Diego Olagaray told the board that if the new tax were adopted, they wouldn't see improved services.

"We need more taxpayers in this county, not to increase the burden to existing taxpayers," said Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation.

The board chambers were packed with an estimated 100 farmers on Tuesday. About a dozen of them spoke from the podium, telling the Board of Supervisors how important agriculture is to the county's economy. Another common theme was that passing on the state's Williamson Act cutbacks to the county would create hardships on farmers.

Some were also skeptical that the state would eventually extend the 2016 sunset date.

"Once we get these things, they never come off," former Farm Bureau President Paul Sanguinetti said.

Sanguinetti added that it would have been helpful if county officials indicated how the increased revenue the farmers would be used.

After the meeting, Ruhstaller said that the Board of Supervisors will have to find other ways to trim the county budget. When the ag community complains next year about cutting services, Ruhstaller said, he'll remind them that they didn't want the Williamson Act tax.

Supervisor Carlos Villapudua was absent from Tuesday's meeting, and Supervisor Ken Vogel recused himself from the discussion and vote due to a conflict of interest. Vogel owns property under Williamson Act contracts.

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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