State

Ag land tax aid grieved in Stanislaus County

State leaders have used farmland tax breaks as a budget bargaining chip for at least seven years. So few were surprised when Gov. Schwarzenegger on Tuesday gutted the Williamson Act.

But it stings anyway, said some in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, where crops are king.

"To say I'm extremely disappointed would be a vast understatement," said Diana Westmoreland-Pedrozo, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau. "My feelings are purely unprintable."

Doug Mosebar, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, called the Williamson Act "the most successful farmland preservation tool we've had in this state."

Nearly 16.9 million of the state's 29 million acres of ranch and farmland are protected under the law, according to the California Department of Conservation.

Farmers shouldn't feel immediate pain. But counties will because they are required to honor the 10-year Williamson Act contracts. That means they will pay farmers $27.7 million in place of the state this year, on top of what counties give growers in tax subsidies.

And that money comes directly from counties' general funds, leaving less for sheriff's deputies, parks and other services. It comes to more than $1 million each for Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties.

"It's a fairly significant hit," said Rick Robinson, Stanislaus County's chief executive officer.

The Williamson Act reduces property taxes for farmers who forgo development. They can save 20 percent to 75 percent, depending on soil value and how attractive the land is to builders.

In the past year, Stanislaus County growers received $2.7 million in tax relief, split almost equally between state and county governments. Because of the governor's Tuesday veto, the county this year is on the hook for the entire amount, which has grown to more than $3 million.

"The farmer still gets the money, but it's going to affect the counties by forcing them to make cuts somewhere else," said Jim DeMartini, a grower and chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. His 1,200 acres between Ceres and Patterson are under Williamson Act contracts.

Supervisors in coming weeks will discuss whether to cancel the contracts, which would start a 10-year process, or continue paying farmers at the expense of other services, Robinson said.

But even talking about it isn't that easy, at least in Stanislaus County where four of five supervisors receive Williamson Act benefits and might be barred to avoid conflicts of financial interest. DeMartini and Vito Chiesa, a former Stanislaus County Farm Bureau president, both farm, and Bill O'Brien and Jeff Grover also own farmland, DeMartini said.

The county counsel's office is asking the California Fair Political Practices Commission for advice on how to proceed.

If allowed to vote, "I wouldn't be very receptive to canceling the contracts," DeMartini said. "It's a good land-use tool to keep our unique soils in agriculture."

Mosebar of the state farm bureau said, "There are a lot of pressures on farming and ranching already. This adds another load to the wagon.

"It's important for all of us to realize how important it is to keep domestic food production going so we don't rely on imports like we do for oil. Just look where we are there," Mosebar added.

Wayne Zipser, president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, said he can't blame growers for selling farmland to developers, if government erases tax incentives for farming. Many cattle ranchers operate on razor-thin profit margins, he said.

"They're looking out for their families," Zipser said. "That's why the Williamson Act was such a great tool."

Some hold out hope that legislators will restore the state's payments when the economy rebounds. But that could be years away, Zipser noted.

The 1965 act was named for Assemblyman John Williamson of Bakersfield. Gov. Davis proposed cuts in 2002 and 2003 but could not get lawmakers to agree. They reduced state payments by 10 percent last year and recently proposed a 30 percent drop before Schwarz-enegger removed all but $1,000 from the fund as one of his 21 vetoes of the Legislature's budget.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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