EDITORIAL: It's supervisors, farmers first in Fresno County

The Fresno County Board of Supervisors made their priorities clear at Tuesday's meeting.

It's supervisors and farmers first. Everyone else wait in line.

The county budget, in the board's eyes, has sufficiently bounced back from the depths of the Great Recession to reward the supervisors with a 7% pay raise that inflates their salaries to $107,273 a year, with board chairman Henry R. Perea making $120,682.

Never mind that supervisors in other more affluent counties such as Marin, Napa and Santa Barbara receive substantially lower salaries or continue to turn down scheduled raises.

The board appears intent on keeping the raises that went into effect July 1.

The budget, in the board's eyes, also has enough money to preserve longtime Williamson Act tax breaks for farmers. The supervisors, on a 2-1 vote, rejected a modest tweak of the act that would have generated an additional $2 million for the county.

According to the supervisors, however, the budget isn't healthy enough to honor a sunset clause that would have restored the 7% pay cut imposed on sheriff's deputies two years ago.

Instead, under the terms of a new contract, the deputies will get back a total of 6% in three increments beginning in 2014 and ending in 2016.

According to Fresno County Personnel Director Beth Bandy, the new deputies contract was the idea of their labor representative, Eric Schmidt.

What Bandy didn't say was that the county's hard-ball negotiations with other labor units and threats of another pay cut for the deputies convinced them that waiting to have their pay nearly restored over the next three years was their best option.

In other words, the county's message to the deputies was, thanks for the sacrifice, but we're not going to keep our promise.

Among the supervisors, only Perea sought to have the deputies made whole as called for by the sunset clause.

The stated purpose of the Williamson Act is to prevent urban sprawl and preserve farm land.

But several studies have shown that farmers in the path of development rarely participate.

In fact, less than 3.5% of Williamson Act and the related Farmland Security Zones enrolled land in Fresno County is in the path of urban sprawl projected over the next 40 years, according to local planners.

The reality is that the program largely provides tax breaks for growers whose land will never be developed.

In Fresno County, farmers save about $25 million a year in taxes through the Williamson Act.

Perea was the lone supervisor to support reducing the break by 10% in exchange for reducing by 10% the length of time that land must be preserved.

Judy Case, the only supervisor to give up her raise, abstained from the Williamson Act vote, and Debbie Poochigian recused herself because she owns land enrolled in the act.

Andreas Borgeas voted to keep the act as it is, and so did Phil Larson.

Before voting, Larson said that he owned "20 acres of grapes" that aren't enrolled in the Williamson Act.

However, Larson didn't mention during the meeting what was revealed in county land records and political economic disclosure filings: He is a trustee of the DF 2000 Trust, which has Williamson Act land, and that he received between $500 and $1,000 for his duties as a trustee in 2012.

In the least, the county counsel should publicly state whether or not Larson has a conflict of interest that would require him to recuse himself from voting on Williamson Act matters.

As Fresno County is the nation's No. 1 agriculture producing county, it is sound economic policy for the supervisors to support that industry.

But the board should come up with a more balanced approach to economic development that includes incentives for non-farming businesses in a county plagued by double-digit unemployment and concentrated poverty.

Imagine what our county's entrepreneurs might do with $25 million a year in tax breaks for small businesses.

In regard to the supervisors accepting pay raises while many county employees continue to endure cuts: there is no defense for that.

The board majority simply has no sense of shame. Or leadership.