Large crowd asks county to justify proposed tax increase
MANTI—Sanpete County commissioners tried last week to explain to a crowd that nearly filled the Manti High School auditorium why they are proposing a 60 percent hike in the county tax levy.
But most of about two dozen people who testified at a public hearing last Thursday, Nov. 3 said the proposed increase was simply too much and the county should find some way to tighten its belt.
Citizens tossed out ideas ranging from financing county government primarily with user fees, to a lottery, to selling rights to water that was supposed to be captured by the Narrows Project but now runs down the Colorado River.
The crowd cheered one woman who declared, “If the streets have to turn to dirt, let’s just do it.”
Commission Chairwoman Claudia Jarrett kicked off the hearing by giving some facts about property taxes and explaining the financial stringency the county is facing.
She said the county has about 30,000 parcels in a variety of tax classifications. Many parcels are classified as “greenbelt” and taxed at a very low rate. The county has about a 90 percent collection rate on property taxes.
Jarrett noted that the county levy accounts for about 21 percent of the typical home owner’s property tax bill. School districts get 64 percent. The rest goes to municipalities, water districts and other taxing entities.
According to budget reports posted online by the Utah State Auditor, in the past three years, the total county budget has ranged from $13.6 to $14.6 million. In those same years, the county has collected about $5 to $6 million in property tax.
The rest of the county’s revenue has come from licenses and permits, fines, charges from services, grants, and various forms of federal and state assistance.
Jarrett noted that the last county tax increase was in 2004. Over the years, she said, there has been a lot of discussion among commissioners about whether to increase taxes frequently, a little at a time, or hold off on any increases. County commissions have elected to hold off as long as possible.
“We’ve gone on skin and bones as long as we can,” she said, “and we now have no choice but to increase taxes.”
Jarrett said money coming in toward the end of one calendar year goes toward covering the budget for the next year. Often, by June or July, “it gets scary,” she said as revenue dwindles but the county still has expenses to meet through the remainder of the year.
Often, the county can’t cover all of its expenses for the year with revenue coming in. When that happens, she explained, the county dips into reserves, which have dwindled to $2 million. Those reserves now need to be replenished.
“A rainy day fund is important to have in this day and age” if the county wants to avoid bankruptcy, Jarrett said.
She also talked about some of the fiscal problems the county faces that are beyond its control. Because of the Justice Reinvestment Act approved by the 2015 Legislature, the level of charges, and consequently, the sentences for drug possession have been reduced.
That means more prisoners are being held in county jails rather than sent to state prisons. Recently, she said, the Sanpete County Jail has been nearly full with county inmates, meaning the jail hasn’t had room to house state inmates, for whom it receives state payments.
Counties are required to pay for public defenders, expert witnesses, trial and appeal costs for indigent inmates. The ACLU has filed suit claiming the defense indigent inmates are receiving is inadequate. “It looks like more and more resources” will have to go to indigent defense, she said.
More than half of the land in the county is federal land. The county receives $1.3 million from federal payments in lieu of taxes (PILT). “With the epic election we’re having, we’re very concerned bout what will happen to PILT,” she said.
Meanwhile, the county participates in the Six County Association of Governments, which provides services in aging and nutrition, heat assistance, and critical needs assistance to individuals. The county also contributes to the Central Utah Counseling Center and Central Utah Health Department.
Commissioner Scott Bartholomew noted that shortly after being appointed to the commission, he learned that a soda pop machine was being taken out of the courthouse because it used too much electricity. “That really puts it in perspective,” he said.
Commissioner Steve Frischknecht said that during the recession in 2008 when tax revenue fell, commissioners decided to pay for their own gas and hotels when the traveled out of county for meetings or conferences. They have continued to do so.
Several citizens who came to the microphone to comment said they didn’t want taxes increased to cover improvements at the county fairgrounds.
Ron Ivory, mayor of Fountain Green, said he thought a plan to spent tax money on the fairgrounds had been “squelched” a couple of years ago.
Jarrett said the county and county fair board have raised money from the Utah Community Impact Board (CIB) and other sources to build a new grandstand and make other improvements. But “there’s a slight shortfall in the funding to complete the project.”
Frischknecht said he believes the county and fair board can raise the money they need without dipping into tax funds.
About two years ago, Jarrett noted, the county considered partnering with Manti City and the South Sanpete School District on improvements in the northwest section of Manti, including improvements to the fairgrounds.
But, she said, when some people expressed concern that county dollars might go to the other entities, the county dropped out of the partnership.
Many of the other citizen comments centered on the need to hold the line on tax increases.
Ray LaFollett of Mountainville said no business in the county has had a 60 percent increase in profits and no social security recipients had seen a 60 percent increase in benefits.
“What makes the county special?” he asked. “There should have been better planning in place, and the county should have asked for modest increases as (property) values went up.”
Ted Meikle of Ephraim, who owns the largest hotel in the county, said he had “nothing but respect” for the commissioners and the effort they’ve made to avoid tax increases.
“You’re throwing away a great legacy that you’ve worked for years to build,” he said.
Larry Richards, who owns property in Holladay Oaks, a recreation subdivision near the Sanpete-Juab County line, said he represented owners of cabins and other second homes. Under state law, second homes are taxed on 100 percent of their value, while primary residences are taxed on 55 percent.
“We’re putting a great deal of money into the county, and (we) receive zero,” he said. He claimed Holladay Oaks owners had called the Sheriff’s Office to report people hunting on land posted with “no trespassing” signs, but officers had not responded.
Jeff McDonald, a former Mt. Pleasant city councilman, said when he was in office, he had no trouble identifying unnecessary expenses in the city budget. “If you think about the taxpayer, you can always find places to cut,” he said.
Derek Overly of Gunnison, who owns Therapy West, a physical therapy practice, said government tends to outgrow the ability of people to pay for it.
He said the county needed to look at services to see if they’re really critical and if they fit the proper role of government, and if not, eliminate them.
Jarrett noted that there are a number of tax abatement programs to help veterans, seniors and others who can’t afford to pay taxes.
She also said in order to adopt a budget by the end of the calendar year, the county needs to make a decision on the tax increase by about Dec. 1.