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County braces for impact of state budget cuts

May 25, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

A week and a half after it was released, the governor's proposed state budget May revise still has county officials reeling.

"Except for about $1 billion, Gov. Gray Davis kept his promise in January not to balance the state budget on the backs of local government," county Intergovernmental Relations Director Bob Ham said sarcastically.

Two cuts in the governor's May budget revision that could impact Imperial County residents are in the Williamson Act, which gives tax breaks to farmers, and the governor's statement that he'll suspend state-mandated payments, Ham said.

The 1965 Williamson Act puts idle farmland into conservancy, which lowers the amount of property tax farmers pay. Taxes for farmland in the program are assessed at conservation value, not potential value.

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Imperial Valley farmers have just started using the program in the last year, he said.

Last fall, then Imperial County Farm Bureau Executive Director Lauren Grizzle estimated the program brings nearly $1 million in savings a year to local farmers.

Ham said Davis' proposed cuts in the Williamson Act could cost Imperial County $500,000 but hits all rural counties. State-wide Davis proposes to cut $30 million from the program.

The state Senate and Assembly have already made some changes and sent the proposed cuts to a conference committee where Ham said he thinks legislators will lessen the impacts.

Suspension of state-mandated payments also will hurt all California counties.

California is required to reimburse counties for state mandated programs or services under the 1972 Property Tax Relief Act, also known as Senate Bill 90.

"The state is still required to make the payments, but is not saying when it is going to pay. It is basically borrowing against future budgets," Ham said.

The effect in Imperial County won't be as great because county departments never counted on that money. The county treats it almost like a bonus, he said.

Not a cut, but a passing of the buck, is a $90 million fine from the federal government that the state wants to split with the counties.

The federal government fined the state for not properly automating its child-support collection system. The state failed to follow a federal mandate and now wants counties to pay half the fine, Ham said.

"I don't know what the rationale is on this," he said.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or lauramitchell9@yahoo.com

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