Del Norte to Fish & Wildlife: Pay up

By Jessica Cejnar, The Triplicate September 25, 2013 03:59 pm

State Sen. Nielsen joins effort to collect on a $600,000 debt

Del Norte officials have enlisted the help of state Sen. Jim Nielsen in an attempt to get money they say the California Department of Fish and Wildlife owes the county.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife owes Del Norte County about $600,000 in payments in-lieu of taxes, said County Administrative Officer Jay Sarina. The DFW is required to pay about $60,000 in in-lieu payments to the county each year, Sarina said.

Those payments stem from the creation of wildlife areas, land that has been taken off the county tax roles and set aside for wildlife habitat. Sarina said there are several hundred acres of wildlife areas in Del Norte County, including the Lake Earl Wildlife Area.

“In 2003 they stopped paying the county,” Sarina said. “They’re saying it hasn’t been allocated now and we’re about 10 years into it and there’s been no payment.”

The in-lieu taxes process is governed by Fish and Game Code 1504 and states that the department shall pay the county in which the wildlife area exists “an amount equal to the county taxes levied upon the property.”

Over the years, the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors has sent letters to the Department of Fish and Game to try to get them to pay the money they owe, but Sarina said that plea has fallen on deaf ears. So the Board turned to Nielsen.

In response to a letter Nielsen sent to the DFW requesting an explanation of why those in-lieu payments haven’t been made, the department’s director Charlton H. Bonham said the last year in-lieu fees were paid to any county was in fiscal year 2001-02.

“In Fiscal Year 2002-03, funding for payment of in-lieu fees was specifically eliminated from the state budget,” Bonham wrote in a letter dated April 23, 2013. “The fees were not paid that year, nor have they been paid in any year since.”

According to Bonham, the Budget Act of 2002 removed funding for in-lieu fees, and the department doesn’t have the budget to pay those fees.

According to Nielsen’s field representative, Scott Feller, Bonham’s response was “less than satisfactory.” Feller said Nielsen’s office will follow up with another letter.

Sarina said the DFW owes in-lieu fees for 36 counties, some small, some large. For example, in Placer County, the DFW’s in-lieu fees total roughly $15.66 a year, he said. Riverside is at $237,000 a year.

When asked what the county could do to recoup the unpaid in-lieu fees, Sarina said there may be legal recourse. He cited Glenn County as an example, which filed a lawsuit against the state. 

According to Cal, the state owes Glenn County about $1.2 million as of April 2013.

“What we’re dealing with right now is going through the Legislative process of bringing it to their attention and asking them to assist us with it,” Sarina said, referring to Nielsen’s intervention.

For District 3 Supervisor Mike Sullivan, who brought the matter up at the Board of Supervisor’s Sept. 10 meeting, the issue has been frustrating.

“You know, all of you, as property owners if you got to the point where you don’t pay your property tax you get foreclosed on,” he said. “Half a million dollars would significantly help our budget.”

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