Yolo County asks state for $1.4 million in back payments

Yolo County demanded Tuesday that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife pay $1.4 million in overdue bills, one of dozens of counties statewide that say they are being stiffed by the agency, including several in rural Northern California.

Yolo officials said the state owes 13 years’ worth of payments for property the agency acquired to manage the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, a nearly 18,000-acre expanse of wetlands and trails between Davis and West Sacramento that is popular among birders and hikers.

Under a 1949 state law, California is supposed to compensate counties for property tax revenues that vanish when the state takes ownership of land for wildlife management purposes. The annual payments are based on the property tax amount paid by the previous owner when the state acquired the land.

Fish and Wildlife has owed Yolo County an estimated $114,511 a year since fiscal 2004-05, according to the Rural County Representatives of California. The same group said the state agency owed Yolo County $113,277 in 2003-04 and $112,391 in 2002-03.

It’s money that frustrated county officials say could have gone to Yolo’s roughly $57.6 million general fund to pay for public safety and other functions.

“This ($1.4 million) is not a small chunk. We’re facing a lot of challenges with our health department, public safety, reimbursements for mental health,” said Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad. “The state wants to partner with us on so much stuff. Why would we want to partner with them when they don’t pay their bills?”

The state last paid counties for wildlife management land in 2001-02 to save money as it faced a budget shortfall, said state Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer. That was several California budget crises ago, and state leaders have continued suspending the payments in their annual spending plans.

With the state’s finances on the mend after a tax hike and an improving economy, the Rural County Representatives of California organization sent a letter in October asking Gov. Jerry Brown to restore the money in his January budget proposal. Palmer said “there has been no final determination on any number of issues” regarding the state budget.

State Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Marysville, represents rural Yuba, Sutter, Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties – owed nearly $2.5 million combined – and is a member of the Assembly’s budget committee. He is pushing to have the state make back payments on what it owes and to restart the annual “in-lieu” contributions.

“These are counties that are struggling as it is. This has a bigger impact. Rural counties don’t have the economic engines of urban areas,” Logue said. “They’re struggling to operate hospitals and keep businesses open. Government services are desperately needed. We’re asking the governor to have these funds reimbursed.”

Rural leaders have battled Brown on budget matters before, most notably when he and Democratic lawmakers imposed a fire fee on rural property owners in 2011.

Yolo County is but the latest in a long line of California counties – 36 in all, many of them small, rural, cash-strapped and scattered across the north state – urging Fish and Wildlife to pay its combined $17.1 million tab to the counties for years of what they say are delinquent in-lieu fees. The state has a $96.3 billion general fund budget this fiscal year.

“It’s a large impact on the local level, but it’s not a big impact for the state,” said Rural County Representatives spokesman Justin Caporusso.