Fresno County's assessor on Thursday submitted a final $57.3 billion tax roll for the coming year, locking in higher property taxes for thousands of agricultural landowners and ensuring an increase in the county's total tax stream for the first time in three years.
While most residential and commercial property remained flat or lost value this year, assessments of farmland rose as crop prices went up and new production began. And, according to the Assessor's Office, a lot of farmland had not been reassessed – sometimes for decades – meaning tax bills due out this fall also will reflect years of unrecorded gains.
The farm tax hikes will average 23%, the office reports.
The increase in the total roll, while less than half a percent, is good news for county government, schools and special districts, which have been struggling with falling revenues. It's bad news, however, for farmers who have heard about the pending tax bump and say it's not a good time to raise their taxes.
"A lot of growers are barely hanging on and this would push them over the top," said Roffi Jarahian, who grows grapes on 40 acres outside Sanger.
The uptick in property taxes from farmland is not unique to Fresno County. Across the central and southern San Joaquin Valley, farm values are increasing even as residential and commercial properties languish.
"Ag, as a whole, is far better off than other sectors of the economy," said Thomas Kidwell, Madera County assessor. "Exports are up. Prices are up. The weather has cooperated."
The agricultural properties facing higher bills are those under Williamson Act contracts.
The 1965 law allows counties to provide lower tax assessments on farmland as incentive to keep land from being developed. The law, though, calls for the farmland under contract to be revalued according to its use, and that use can mean higher assessments and more taxes.
In Kern County, which has the second-most Williamson Act parcels after Fresno County, farmers will see an average 25% hike in property taxes, officials there reported. Like Fresno County, Kern County assessors said a lot of farmland had not been reassessed for years, a lag they attributed to limited staffing.
In Madera County, the tax roll on Williamson Act land will grow 10%. In Tulare County, officials said there would be growth but could not immediately say how much. Kings County anticipates a slight .
Fresno County's 23% increase is due mostly to higher crop values on Williamson Act land – about three quarters of the gain – and the rest to new plantings, according to the Assessor's Office.
The office Thursday had not yet calculated how many of the county's roughly 15,000 Williamson Act parcels will see higher tax bills, but Assessor-Recorder Paul Dictos said it would be the majority. Ninety percent, he said, are still assessed below Proposition 13 limits; the rest have hit that cap.
The properties getting higher bills are not limited to one area, the office reported, but they are spread across the county's east and west sides.
Land with almonds and raisins, whose values have increased significantly, will see the biggest tax jumps.
Almond growers can expect a tax increase of $16 to $25 an acre, while growers of Thompson seedless grapes can expect an increase of $8 to $10 an acre, Dictos said.
Grazing property on the east side also will see higher bills since much of that land had not been reassessed recently, according to the Assessor's Office.
The bump in farm taxes goes directly to the local agencies serving rural areas, such as the county government and special districts, including Fresno County Fire.
"With whatever potential increase in tax dollars there are, we can get back to the point where we're purchasing new equipment again," said county Fire Chief Keith Larkin. "We may be able to make slight increases in staffing."
The fire department, which is responsible for protecting 2,600 square miles, has not been able to fill vacancies or purchase a needed fire engine because of recent cuts.
The force, with about 110 full-time firefighters, is almost entirely funded by property taxes.
Schools also will see additional tax dollars from the farms, although many would see the money anyway. The state provides subsidies for poorer schools that don't reach a certain funding level, which include most schools in Fresno County.
Williamson Act parcels account for about $3.9 billion of the county's total tax roll this year, up from about $3.1 billion last year, according to the Assessor's Office.
County Supervisor Henry Perea said he was pleased to hear of the increase.
"That's our responsibility to capture every tax dollar owed," he said. "The county needs revenue to provide the services we're mandated to perform."
Supervisor Debbie Poochigian, however, worried about the tax roll growing at the expense of farmers.
"The harder you make it for agriculture to survive, the easier it will be to put houses on prime ag land, and I don't want to see that happen," she said.
After completing the tax roll Dictos said, "My decisions are predicated not on politics but doing the job right and treating all segments of our county fairly and equitably."