An important service routinely provided by American newspapers is to objectively examine complex issues and break them down into simpler, comprehensible parts. With such insight, readers can better choose for themselves what is right, wrong or somewhere in between.
An example of this service is found in last Thursday’s page one story, “County at bottom of list for property tax collection.”
In response to growing confusion over Tooele County’s current budget challenges, and perceptions about how much local citizens pay in real (commercial and residential) property taxes to the county, we drilled down through available numbers to determine how much locals actually paid last November 30.
Here are some of the highlights that what we found and reported:
1. Over the past 25 years the Tooele County Commissioners haven’t increased taxes.
2. Tooele County’s tax rate on real property for 2012 was .001302. Of Utah’s 29 counties, that is the second lowest in the state. Last year that tax rate generated $1.9 million in real property taxes for the county.
3. Of that $1.9 million, the county’s total real property tax revenue averages out to $105 per household. That average was the lowest real property tax collected per household in the state during 2012.
How could Tooele County have the lowest tax collected per household in the state last year? Simply, it could afford to — or, in light of recent cuts to employees and services, there was a time that it could.
The commissioners have long cited that hazardous waste mitigation fees, paid by industries for the privilege to dispose of such waste in the Great Salt Lake Desert, are the reason why property taxes are so low. It is also why the commissioners haven’t sought tax increases. In an interview with the Transcript Bulletin two years ago, Commissioner Jerry Hurst summarized it succinctly:
“Mitigation fees go into our general coffers and that’s what helps us to keep our taxes down and keep services up.”
But those mitigation fees have dwindled significantly. Such fees, primarily paid by EnergySolutions for disposing low-activity radioactive material in the desert, are no longer keeping our ‘taxes down and services up.’ As we reported last Thursday, those fees have dropped from nearly $5.9 million in 2011 to an estimated $3.7 million in 2012.
Because fees again aren’t expected to increase this year, the commissioners last December adopted a 2013 General Operating Budget that includes an 82 percent tax increase on real property. If implemented the $150,000 homeowner will have to pay an extra $88 in property taxes.
The commissioners have since reopened the budget and have made more employee and service cuts to lower that 82 percent increase before property tax notices are sent this summer. Unless the commissioners can find a way to significantly lower that increase, Truth in Taxation hearings in August could be lively with angry citizens who are used to paying a lot less.
But ultimately, more steps to reduce costs and a tax increase aren’t going to solve Tooele County’s budget challenges long term. There is a bigger task at hand: For the long-term economic vitality of the county, its dependence on single categories of industry to help pay the bills must be minimized. The impact from dwindling mitigation fees is proof enough.