‘Tax increase has made us whole again,’ Sanpete commissioner says
By James Tilson
MANTI—The Sanpete County budget has been remarkable stable since the county implemented a big tax increase in late 2017.
The budget for calendar 2019 is actually down $34,000 from the 2018 budget, a relatively small amount for a budget over $15 million.
The 2019 budget totals out to $15,684,982, compared to $15,719,446 in 2018. When asked how the county ended up with a budget that is nearly identical to this year, Sanpete County Commission Chair Scott Bartholomew said, “It just happened that way.”
“It’s always a struggle to make ends meet in a small county,” he said. “But we have departments that are very good at finding the best way to stretch a dollar. At the same time, we also need to pay our employees what they’re worth. We’ve traditionally done that by enhancing our benefits package to offset the salary that we can’t afford.”
Commissioner Claudia Jarrett echoed that sentiment when the commission approved the budget last week. “Nearly every department is at or near last year’s requests,” she said. “Our county employees have become experts in efficiency.”
Bartholomew noted the property tax increase from two years ago had the expected effect. “It has made us whole again.” Prior to the increase, the county had been drawing from reserves just to pay its bills and dropping the reserves dangerously low. With the current revenue stream, the reserves have come up to previous levels, he said.
Another positive factor in the short term has been the renewal of federal Payments in Lieu of Taxation (PILT). PILT has traditionally been a large proportion of county revenue, and the 2019 budget is no different. However, when the Trump Administration first took office, the payments were cut off, which created a shortfall.
In 2019, Sanpete County has budgeted to receive $1,448,808 from the federal government. Bartholomew says congressional representatives have assured him that Sanpete can count on those funds for at least the next three to four years. “But nothing is truly secure,” he said. “Just look at last year.”
The budget also includes a pay increase plan aimed at helping county agencies retain their employees. The 2019 budget includes a six-year step wage increase for all county employees. Bartholomew admitted that the idea to include a schedule of wage increases originated out of discussions with the Sheriff’s Office. But the commission realized that all departments were having the same issues trying to recruit and keep their employees.
Retiring Auditor Ilene Roth noted that the expense budget is stable across the board compared to last year. She said there are just three significant differences from last year.
In 2018, the budget included about $830,000, much of it from grants and donations for fairgrounds improvements. Most of the improvements are complete, and most of the money has been spent, so the amount listed for improvements in 2019 is $22,000. And the Fair Board hopes more private donations come in to cover most of that.
Last year, the county budgeted about $100,000 to help the Sanpete Pantry resurface its parking lot. That project is finished, so that expense is gone.
Finally, the county has changed its system of providing public defenders, and special attorneys if a case arises where one of the county attorneys has a conflict of interest.
The county is contracting with a firm in Utah County for attorney services. The contract helps guarantee that the same attorney will stay on a case from beginning to end. A new feature is an evaluation component that reviews the quality of services provided. Because of the changes, the budget for public defender and other attorney services has gone from $166,300 in 2018 to $275,400 for 2019.
Compared to many local governments, Sanpete County is remarkably debt free. It’s biggest debt service obligation is $943,000 annually for the Sheriff’s Complex, including the county jail. The county also pays an $18,000 annual payment on the Central Utah Counseling Center building, but it receives special revenue to offset most of that cost. The county pays a $12,000 annual payment on the fire station in Indianola. However, Roth pointed out, the fire station is being paid by a local assessment, and not from countywide revenue.