“Don’t mess with the farmers!” I’ve heard these words of wisdom a few times in my career, always from well-meaning individuals who had come out on the wrong side of a PUV auditing program. They had come to the conclusion that it wasn’t politically feasible to conduct stringent audits of their farms in the present use program, and that the county was better off letting everyone but the most egregious non-qualifiers go through.
For many years this was true in Alamance County (the place I call home). In the 1980’s, our Board of Commissioners, sitting as the Board of Equalization, used the PUV program to soothe disgruntled property owners – regardless of their actual qualifications. In the 90’s through the 2000’s, our auditing function was relegated to second-or-third tier responsibilities for appraisers, land records staff, and tax clerks. It was rarely performed and even more rarely done thoroughly. After one failed attempt at prioritizing PUV audits ended in a signed petition from outraged farmers, our county had pretty much given up on enforcing the qualifications set out by statute.
Today, you would never know it. Alamance County has two full-time PUV Appraisers whose primary responsibility is administering and auditing our PUV program. They are well-known, and well respected, by our farm community who support our auditing work. Our reviews are in-depth and we hold firmly to the standards set out in statute. Further, far from being an expense to the county, our return on investment from this program is three times the total cost of operation… and growing.
How did we get here? First, we started with the farm community. We worked with prominent members of the farm community (if you don’t know who those are in your areas, just visit a few meetings of the Voluntary Agriculture District, Farm Bureau, Cattleman’s Association, etc. and you’ll soon find out), who understood the benefit of the program to local agriculture and the risk that non-qualifying persons pose to the continued existence of the program. They know the difference between real farmers and “hobby” farmers, former farmers and non-farmers. They don’t think that these other groups should be able to get the same benefit as legitimate farmers and they worry that the “dead wood” will eventually jeopardize the program for everyone. These individuals can act as spokespersons for the need for a PUV auditing program.
Second, we built credibility. We hired local farmers to be our PUV auditors. These are individuals who are known in the community and who know the difference between soundly managed farms, and sloppy excuses for farms. They can understand the concerns of our farm community, know the expected etiquette of farm culture, and believe in the importance of what they are doing to aid local farmers. Further, they have a constant outreach to meetings of our various farm groups and take every opportunity to speak about the program. We have positioned ourselves as valuable information resources and partners to the legitimate farmers.
Third, we sold the bottom line to our County Commissioners and members of the general public. Not just at the outset of the auditing program, but on a regular basis we provide our County Commissioners with a report of the revenues generated from the auditing program (including the “snowball effect” of disqualifications in past years causing a property to be taxed in full in the current year). We net out the complete costs of operating the program, down to sticky notes and ink pens, to show the net revenues we have generated. Both our Commissioners and our public can see that this program is not a waste of taxpayer dollars, but a revenue generator. As Commissioners aren’t getting pressure from the public due to the cost of the program, or pressure from the farmers due to disqualifications, they can safely endorse and support our PUV auditing program.
One important factor in transitioning from a present-use free-for-all to an organized auditing program is to not forget “the golden rule.” Our citizens have become accustomed to lax enforcement of the rules. Many of them have drifted into non-compliance and a sudden strict enforcement would come as a shock. We acknowledge our role in this, and when we come across a farmer who has dipped below the acreage minimum (but obviously once met requirements and could easily clear some land and get back into compliance), rather than rolling them out, we give them a deadline to return to compliance. Likewise, farmers sometimes blunder into changing to a non-qualifying ownership. We understand that this can be confusing and give them a window of time to correct the ownership and return to compliance. Most farmers do this and are thankful for the second chance (building our reputation as being fair), but some farmers do not. When we roll these farmers out, any complaints they raise to their neighbors fall on deaf ears.
Although each case is different and must be considered on its own merits, we have worked hard to establish a standard of what leniency will be offered so that everyone is treated equally and one farmer only given 30 days to correct an issue doesn’t find out his neighbor was given 90 days. The exact amount of lenience you choose to provide is less important than the fact that some lenience was given and that it was done consistently. Ultimately, this lenience must be short-lived and compliance must be restored back to the requirements of statute. Those who cannot or will not quickly return to compliance must be disqualified.
While I would never advise anyone to “mess with the farmers,” I would certainly recommend working with your farm community to establish a fair and reasonable auditing program that benefits both sides.