Vote pushes back on state, props up farmers

San Luis Obispo County’s top political body sent out strong dual messages Tuesday, one to the state and one to its agricultural community.

To the state: Stop trying to make us pay your bills.

To the locals: Agriculture is vitally important in San Luis Obispo County, and we will do whatever it takes to keep it healthy.

The Board of Supervisors’ discussion centered on the Williamson Act, and a recent state bill that allows counties to reconfigure conservation contracts in a way that would leave farmers and ranchers covered by the contracts paying more money.

The Williamson Act, passed in 1965, gives farmers and ranchers a tax break if they agree to keep their land productive for a period of time, generally 10 or 20 years. Its intent was to preserve not only agriculture but also open space by keeping land from development.

It has worked extremely well in San Luis Obispo County over the decades, supervisors and agricultural interests agreed Tuesday.

The downside for local governments is a loss of tax revenue for the property, because the land is being taxed on the basis of its agricultural uses rather than its potential market value, which is higher.

According to county officials, various governmental agencies throughout the county lose $10 million annually in taxes they might have otherwise collected. The county government itself loses $3 million.

To make up for that, the state has historically subsidized some of the loss, through what they call a “subvention.” It stopped doing that three years ago when the economy went into the doldrums, and the county picked up the tab, at an estimated three-year cost of more than $3.1 million.

This year, the state passed AB 1265, which allowed local governments, through a series of contract maneuvers, to pick up some of their lost revenue by altering Williamson Act contracts in a way that would have left those entering the contracts paying more.

Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, is recorded on the state’s legislative website as voting in favor of AB 1265 and State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, is recorded as not voting.

The county’s agricultural establishment, including the Farm Bureau, studied AB 1265, and recommended that supervisors not make the changes the bill would allow. They argued that it would have a negative fiscal impact.

In addition, Joy Fitzhugh of the Farm Bureau warned, there would be a “psychological impact.” If the state sees counties and Williamson Act contractees picking up the bill, she said, it will be less likely to pay state money to the counties when the economy improves.

Mike Brown of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business agreed that going along with AB 1265 would set the county on a “very slippery slope,” and added that agriculture is important not only to farmers and ranchers but also to auxiliary businesses like trucking and farm equipment.

Supervisor Adam Hill said the bill “passes the buck to the counties” and is “another problem that the state has pushed off on local folks.”

Hill and Brown agreed that agriculture and the Williamson Act are important to the county, and Hill added that the Board of Supervisors always has and always will give the Williamson Act robust support.

The vote was 4-0 to not implement changes to the Williamson Act authorized by AB 1265. Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who has land covered by the act, did not participate in the discussion or the vote.