These are not easy days to be a Tooele County commissioner.
That became evident at last week’s public hearing during which commissioners Myron Bateman, Wade Bitner and Shawn Milne listened to almost a dozen citizens say they don’t want to pay next year an extra 8.67-percent tax for the combined county general and health department funds, and 9 percent more for the municipal services tax.
But what happened before those citizens spoke made it even more clear the commissioners face hard choices until they adopt the county’s 2017 general budget next month. As reported in last Thursday’s front-page story “County told not to raise taxes again,” several county department heads were also at the hearing. Each explained why they need more money.
The first to speak was Mark McKendrick, who is the county’s director of facilities management. He said the county building’s 44-year-old boilers will soon need to be replaced ($100,000), a parking lot needs to be resurfaced ($60,000) and a water treatment system ($250,000) needs to be installed at the Tooele County Detention Center (see related front-page story).
Next, Tooele County Treasurer Mike Jensen said the computer program for the county’s tax roll system, which is used to produce tax notices, has reached the end of its service life. He said the program is vital to record and maintain property values and tax information. To replace it will cost $400,000 with annual maintenance costs of $40,000-$50,000 per year.
But those costs pale in comparison to what Deputy Tooele County Attorney Gary Searle explained. When he started in the county attorney’s office 19 years ago, there were about 250 felony cases filed that year; so far this year, over 700 felony cases have been filed. The reason? A growing county population.
Searle warned the commissioners they could see legal costs jump from $350,000 up to $1 million per year if the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah wins its lawsuit against the state. The ACLU claims the state’s public defender system is unconstitutional for defendants who can’t afford legal help.
“You need to be prepared for that,” he warned.
Searle and the other department heads urged the commissioners to approve the proposed tax increases for next year because they’re small. Also, Searle said he doesn’t want to see another 67-percent tax hike like what occurred in 2013 because the county chose not to raise taxes for a few years.
It could be said what all nine department heads asked for are not wants but needs to keep basic county government services viable. Added up, the requests exceed $3 million. With the maximum amount of proposed new taxes collected in 2017 set at $450,000 by the commissioners, only a fraction, or none at all, may be funded.
Due to the county’s financial crisis a few years ago, the commissioners are yet again faced with choosing not to hurt local taxpayers’ pocketbooks while trying to keep county services viable.
Although they have hard budget choices to make before Jan. 1, the commissioners are acknowledged for holding two public hearings on the proposed tax increases, both of which weren’t required. The commissioners want citizens to know what’s at stake and why. If they didn’t before, they do now.