The Tooele County Commissioners pulled in the largest crowd yet Tuesday night in their series of town hall meetings for a proposed tax increase.
A group of 45 citizens packed the banquet hall at Stockton Miners Cafe in Stockton to let the commissioners know their thoughts about the proposed 66 percent hike in property taxes for 2013.
Small business owners decried the proposed tax increase while elected county officials at the meeting said they have little, if anything left, to cut out of their budgets.
“I’ve got two small businesses. As costs go up, prices go up and I get complaints and I lose customers,” said Blaine Fawson, owner of Kravers. “My wife and I have to work 14 hours a day, six days a week. As far as cuts, we’ve had to stop sponsoring things like baseball and softball. Here in the near future, I’ve got some knuckle head back east that’s going to tell me I’ve got to pay my employees $9 or $9.50 an hour. I can’t. My expenses are killing me. It’s not just taxes, it’s a combination of everything. I keep hearing that small businesses are the backbone. Actually we are the cash cow.”
Ron Holmes, owner of Stockton Miners Cafe, echoed Fawson’s concerns.
“We haven’t taken a dollar out of this place in six years,” he said.
The commissioners’ proposed tax increase is sought to raise $2.6 million that will be used to pay back inter-fund loans from other county departments that started in 2009. Those funds were used to keep Deseret Peak Complex open. The tax increase will also rebuild the county’s fund balance and help start a capital improvement fund, according to Jeremy Walker, Tooele County Treasurer.
Without the tax increase, Commissioner Shawn Milne estimated the county will need to layoff another 80 employees to save $2.6 million to start paying back the inter-fund loans. More than 100 county employees have already been laid off since last fall.
At Tuesday’s meeting, each elected official took a turn explaining how much they have cut from their budgets and that more cuts may not be possible.
“I cannot run elections with less people. We laid off the people that used to help with elections,” said Tooele County Clerk Marilyn Gillette. “We’ve cut our pay and reduced hours. There have been big cuts and we have taken on additional duties.”
Tooele County Recorder Jerry Houghton described that the recorder’s department has cut three employees and picked up the building, planning and zoning departments.
“Planning and zoning had five people. We are down to one,” he said. “If we go down farther, we are down past bare minimum where we can actually function.”
Tooele County Attorney Doug Hogan said as a result of budget cuts, his office is the only prosecutorial office in the state with no legal support staff.
“I’ve cut all that I think I can as a reasonable public servant and still get the job done,” he said.
With the need to repay internal loans for Deseret Peak Complex at the forefront of the proposed tax increase, the subject of the complex’s future was raised by several people who spoke at the meeting.
“Deseret Peak is why we’re here,” said Steve Burgess. “Sell it, lease it, or give it away.”
Others, however, see value in keeping the facility.
“I for one like Deseret Peak,” said Stew Paulick. “The citizens of Tooele have deserved that place for a long time. I think it is time that we start paying our way, and our way means we got to pay a little more taxes.”
“I agree that we need Deseret Peak,” added David Yarbrough.
Some residents agreed that continuing cuts in the county budget would have negative effects on services.
“Folks, you get what you pay for,” said Mike Case. “If you dig your heels and say, ‘I will never ever raise taxes,’ this is what you are going to get. You’re going to get services and employees that are cut. You can only outsource and cut back for so long before some service that you are going to need is no longer going to be there. Outsourcing every thing like the sheriff’s department and selling everything is just a dopey idea. If you are going to take the tea party attitude that you do not raise taxes, then you are going to get sub-par government at some point.”
The Stockton Town Hall meeting was the fourth in a series of meetings held by the commissioners to explain the county’s financial recovery plan in advance of a truth in taxation hearing on Aug. 20.
Previous meetings have been held at Stansbury High School, the Deseret Peak Convention Center and Grantsville High School. Another town hall meeting is scheduled for Aug. 13 at 7 p.m. in the Tooele High School auditorium.