Millions For County Funding Reduced To $133 By State Budget Woes

Imagine being told you're going to earn $4.6 million from the state for preserving farmland and open space, but when the check comes in the mail, it's only for $133.22.

Well, that's the situation county officials found themselves in when the money for taking part in the Williamson Act came back, complicating an already tense budget standoff at the county level.

"Not receiving this annual payment is a major issue for the county," Ted James, the county's development services agency director, said.

The Williamson Act program gives property tax relief to farmers and owners of open space to conserve the land, keeping it out of the hands of developers. Cities and counties who take part in the program are supposed to receive annual subvention payments that go to theit general fund to make up for the lost property tax revenues.

"It's consistent with policies of the state for compacting development, making sure they don't get too spread out and sprawled," John Hardisty, a consultant for South Valley Solutions, said.

"They've taken actions that are contrary to the laws they have about preserving prime farmland," James added. "On the one hand, you want us to preserve the land, but on the other, you're not giving us a financial incentive to do that."

During last year's budget negotiations, state lawmakers suspended the program, reducing what was once a $28 million operation to a budget line-item with a $1,000 placeholder to keep it in place rather than cut it altogether.

"That essentially killed it," Hardisty said. "But at the end of the year, the bookkeepers say, 'We have to distribute the money, so we prorate out a thousand bucks among all the counties and cities in the program.'"

No one received a payment last year, and this year, Kern County received $133.22, when they would have received $4.6 million for the 1.6 million acres of preserved land before the program's suspension.

Surprisingly, that was the second highest payout. Only Fresno County, which got $150, had more, while places like Orange County got checks for one penny, meaning it cost more to mail and process the payout than the value of the check itself, Hardisty said.

Abandoning the program, which was created through an act authored by former Kern County Assemblyman John Williamson in the 1960's, is currently not an option for the county, James said. Instead, it is monitoring how other agencies react, and looking for other sources of funding.

"One may be a user fee," he said. "Another could be some kind of transactional costs, one to enter the program, one to participate, and when you leave the program there's a cost as well."

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