EDITORIAL: Fresno County must quicken review of Williamson Act tax breaks

There's only one reason Fresno County isn't relentlessly pursuing local folks who are cheating cities, schools, special districts and the county out of millions of tax dollars every year.

The scoundrels are farmers, and most of the members of the Board of Supervisors are content to look the other way because farmers are their political allies.

As The Bee's Kurtis Alexander reported on Monday, less than 10% of the tax breaks given to farmers under the Williamson Act have been reviewed for problems over the past two years. At this rate, it will take 18 more years for the county to determine who is and isn't out of compliance.

The county began the reviews in 2011 -- years after Bob Werner, the county assessor at the time, alerted supervisors in a public meeting that Williamson Act property owners were getting tax breaks for which they were not entitled.

An independent report last year suggested that 5% of Fresno's Williamson Act tax benefits go to properties no longer being farmed. The report also estimated that 20% of the tax breaks were wrongly calculated. Given that the Williamson Act tax breaks total nearly $30 million a year, the loss in revenue is considerable.

The supervisors' stated reason for not aggressively pursuing the cheaters is a lack of money for extra staff. Given the millions of dollars at stake, this excuse doesn't wash.

Supervisor Judy Case also said that she doesn't want the county's Department of Public Works and Planning to get bogged down with Williamson Act reviews. That department, Case said, should focus on economic development.

We agree. Responsibility for ensuring that Williamson Act landowners pay exactly what they owe -- not a penny more, not a penny less -- should be switched to the office of County Assessor Paul Dictos. The board then should increase Dictos' budget so that the reviews are expedited. The planning department would still retain oversight of the contracts.

Given today's technology, there's no reason for these reviews to take so long. Staff easily can determine whether land is being farmed -- or has been subdivided -- using aerial photograph maps available on the Internet.

The board has a moral and a legal obligation to end these blatant and outrageous political shenanigans.