By John Howard.

Decades ago, California began taking over the management of thousands of acres of rural wildlands in dozens of counties across the state.

The formerly private properties now form a key part of the state’s network of wildlife refuges.

But over the years a problem arose: With the state in control, some counties were cut out of the money that they otherwise would have collected from property taxes. The state had promised to compensate the counties for the lost revenue by making payments in lieu of taxes.

But since 2002, with the state’s finances crippled, that hasn’t happened.

“Basically, the bottom fell out of the economy,” said state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis.

Even with an economic upturn, the payments haven’t resumed.

“It’s a long-festering sore,” said state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber. “Beyond the fact that the counties are in need of the money, the state of California is not keeping faith with the counties. The state says, ‘We’ll make a deal with you, but if it inconveniences the state, we’re not going to pay.’”

County officials say the total tab has reached $22 million for 36 counties and they want Gov. Jerry Brown to pay up. The administration puts the figure lower, at $17.1 million through last June, while legislative consultants believe it is about $19 million.

In an era of 11- and 12-digit state budgets, the numbers may sound like small change, but to the counties they are crucial.

Riverside County is owed the most, nearly $2.7 million; there’s  $1.42 million due Yolo, $1.44 million for Napa and $1 million for Merced.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers headed by Wolk and Nielsen introduced legislation, SB 1410, that would capture $19 million for the counties and get $2 million annually going forward to keep the accounts current. Co-authors of their bill include state Assemblymembers Mariko Yamada, D-Davis; Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata and Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, plus nine Republicans.

The nonpayment by the state “has, in particular, hurt our small rural counties who struggle to provide for the needs of county residents,” Kathy Mannion, of the Rural County Representatives of California, wrote to Gov. Brown last fall. Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties are among the group’s 33 counties.

“Because the Budget Act of 2002 specifically removed funding for this purpose, the Department does not have a budget to pay in lieu tax obligations,” state Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham wrote last year.

The Brown administration said the decision to stop paying the money, known in the bureaucracy as PILT, or payments in lieu of taxes, was made the by Legislature and requires lawmakers’ action to change.

“It’s certainly their prerogative,” said Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer. “It was taken out of the budget and the Legislature hasn’t put it back in.”

Brown’s official leading the Fish and Wildlife Department, which actually manages the properties, agrees.

“Because the Budget Act of 2002 specifically removed funding for this purpose, the Department does not have a budget to pay in lieu tax obligations,” state Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham wrote last year to Sen. Nielsen. Bonham’s agency is the state office that manages the land.

The state manages 110 properties in designated wildlife areas across California, a total of 705,545 acres, according to Bonham’s department. They are accessible to the public, according to the state.

A breakdown of local properties was not available last week.

Counties say negotiations with the state have been difficult.

“We’ve been asking for payment and getting little or no response,” said Mike Murray, chairman of the Glenn County board of supervisors. Glenn County, largely agricultural, has sued the state seeking more than $1 million in payments, mostly from wildlands bordering the Sacramento River. The case, which advanced from the Superior Court, is on appeal.

“My gut reaction,” Murray added, “is that we don’t have enough of a voter base to be influential. It’s only when we partner with other counties, like RCRC, that they listen to us, but we’ve got to remain visible.”

A big question is whether Brown, whose administration thus far has declined to make the payments, will sign the Wolk-Nielsen bill. So far, he isn’t saying.

“I hope so,” Wolk said.

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Ed’s Note: A version of this story appeared in The Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, a content partner of Capitol Weekly.