Tooele County officials faced 200 residents Tuesday in the Tooele High School auditorium for the county’s last town hall meeting before a Truth in Taxation hearing next week.
The evening’s turnout was the largest of five town hall meetings that were held throughout the summer to let citizens learn about the county’s financial recovery plan and proposed property tax increase.
The meetings were also held so citizens could pose questions to the Tooele County Commission before a Truth in Taxation hearing, which will occur at 7 p.m. next Tuesday at Deseret Peak Complex’s Convention Center (see related sidebar on Page A9).
Several people expressed opposition to the tax hike during the final town hall meeting. Others appeared to welcome the increase, while some expressed that they had little faith the commissioners would spend it prudently.
“Once the tax is approved, it is $2.6 million a year forever,” said Jeff McNeill, who is opposed to the tax increase.
“Can we trust you to spend it properly?” he asked.
Rhonda Larsen, a county employee, expressed concern about trusting commissioners to do the right thing.
“I’ve lost friends and had co-workers laid off,” she said. “If you raise taxes, what guarantee is there going to be that you will follow the recovery plan?”
Larsen said she was concerned that a lack of communication may thwart the county’s goal of financial recovery.
“We are going to need more communication from commissioners to employees,” said Larsen. “We even have three commissioners that don’t communicate with each other. One doesn’t know what the other is doing.”
“We need to know you are sincere,” she told the commissioners, “that you will take this tax increase and look after the people that put you into office and be accountable.”
Others called for resignations of elected officials to restore public confidence.
“What we have is a lack of leadership,” said Ray Chatwin. “Who is going to accept responsibility and say, ‘We’ve done a poor job, we are so embarrassed to have to raise taxes so high, it’s our fault, we did it,’ and resign so we will have faith.”
“I am not opposed to the tax increase if it is reasonable and can be justified,” said Denise Graham. “Yet I don’t hear anybody standing up to say ‘I was responsible. I wasn’t a good steward of your funds. I don’t deserve to be a county commissioner’ and step down. If we don’t hear that, we need to look at another form of government because this one isn’t working.”
Vicki Griffith, broker for Prudential Utah Tooele Real Estate and who also ran against Bruce Clegg for county commissioner in 2010, said she saw the financial crisis coming.
“I stood on this stage in 2010 and said the county is running out of money,” she said. “I’m not in favor of a tax increase, but I feel like this is something that has to be.”
Griffith said her research into property taxes in other counties indicates that after the tax increase, Tooele County’s property tax rate will still be lower than many other counties.
“The tax increase should not affect our real estate market or the ability of people to sell their homes,” she said.
Todd Stewart said he opposes the tax increase as a matter of principal.
“I am against the tax increase,” he said. “Twenty-five percent is not enough of a cut when there are businesses out there that have cut 60 to 75 percent. You’ve just got to cut more.”
Balancing the budget is not as simple as just cutting more, said Tooele County Attorney Doug Hogan.
“If I were to lose another 50 percent, I could not do the job that I am tasked to do,” he said. “There would be reports that my office receives from law enforcement that would never get looked at. There are crimes that would never get prosecuted and victims that would never get justice.”
Stew Paulick not only supports the tax increase, he also presented the county commission with more than 450 signatures and 1,400 names and comments from people that support a Facebook page titled, “Save Deseret Peak.”
The petition calls for the county to continue to own, fund, maintain, and operate the facility.
“I’m in favor of the tax increase,” he said. “For years the county has used mitigation fees for operating expenses and here in the county we have had the lowest county tax for operations of any county in the state. It is time for the citizens of Tooele County to start paying there own way instead of living off of mitigation fees.”
The operation of Deseret Peak Complex dominated the comments at the meeting, but the tax increase will not restore funding for Deseret Peak, open it swimming pool, bring back the county fair, or unlock the gates at the Benson Gristmill, according to county commissioners.
The county’s financial recovery plan only earmarks the tax increase for three specific purposes: Restore $6.5 million to ten different funds that the county used to make up a shortfall between revenue and expenses at Deseret Peak since 2009; increase the county’s general fund balance; and establish a fund for capital projects.
It is the $6.5 million of internal debt, along with an ideological battle about the proper role of government, that drove many people to the microphone at the town hall meeting Tuesday.
“When government takes tax dollars to create a business, I feel kind of afraid,” said David Vice. “Deseret Peak as a business goes against the free market capitalist concept of America. Whoever had the idea for this failed socialist experiment of Deseret Peak should really resign because you are in the wrong country, dude.”
Steve Burgess opposes the proposed tax hike as well as the county continuing to own and operate Deseret Peak.
“Talking to you guys is like talking to a bunch of mules,” he said. “I don’t see why you don’t address the problem. Deseret Peak is just sitting there not making any money. It’s a dead loss. I don’t see why you tax 100 percent of the people for something 10 percent of the people use once or twice a year. A few people may use it more often, but it’s a drain.”
Beverly White had no problems with the county owning Deseret Peak. Her concerns were with how the place is marketed.
“One of you needs to go to business college and learn how to be a salesman,” White said. “Then go out and get some events into that place that attract people and make it pay and we will be all right. People are tired of it being a drain, so get out and market it so it isn’t a drain.”
Commissioner Bruce Clegg said the county has drastically reduced staff at Deseret Peak and raised fees to recover costs.
“While we still have the bonds for the convention center and the waste water lines, the change in how Deseret Peak is managed will be reflected in 2013’s financial reports,” he said.
Both Commissioners Clegg and Shawn Milne said they were reluctantly feeling like the tax increase is necessary. Commissioner Jerry Hurst was not in attendance because his mother passed away recently.
“When I ran for office, I said that I preferred to tighten our belt as opposed to raising taxes,” said Milne. “Things were worse than I knew when I ran. We have tightened our belt about all we can.”