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August 22, 2013
Tax hike won’t reopen Deseret Peak, gristmill

The discussion is over. Property taxes levied by Tooele County will go up for the first time in 27 years.

Tooele County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to increase property tax revenue by 66 percent to pump badly needed funds into the county’s cash-strapped budget.

The property tax hike will net an additional $2.6 million for the county, boosting its overall property tax revenue to $5.9 million.

The commissioners’ decision now means the average $150,000 homeowner will pay an additional $73 by Nov. 30, while the property tax on a $150,000 business will increase $133 per year (See related sidebar).

“When I ran for office it was my intention not to raise taxes,” said Bruce Clegg, Tooele County Commission chairman before he voted for the increase. “We are in an emergency situation with our cash and I don’t want to see the county become insolvent.”

The vote to raise the tax rate came after a one-hour public hearing that was attended by 150 people. Twenty seven chose to address the commission and were allotted two minutes each.

The meeting was shorter and more subdued than the five town hall meetings held earlier around the county this summer, during which question and answer sessions sometimes went on for hours and some speakers became emotional.

Most speakers Tuesday night said they were reluctantly in favor of the tax increase.

“I acknowledge that the tax increase of $2.6 million is absolutely necessary so the county can remain solvent,” said Matt McCarty, of South Rim. “To that end I support the tax increase. However, I’m not happy with how we got here. We would not be here if better financial decisions had been made in the last three to four years.”

Berna Sloan, a lifelong resident of Tooele County, said she was resigned to the fact that a tax increase was needed.

“I wish we didn’t have to raise taxes,” she said. “But I feel it’s a must or the county will go bankrupt.”

Sandy Critchlow of Tooele offered support for the tax increase, but with a caveat.

“I am in favor of the tax increase,” she said, “but I do believe we need to be better stewards of our money.”

Douglas Pure of Stansbury Park opposed the proposed tax increase, although he left the door open to possible support of a more modest increase — after the county commission restores trust and confidence in their management ability.

“This commission, and commissions previous to this, have pulled the dog’s tail one too many times and it turned around and bit you,” he said. “I don’t think that taxpayers should have to pick that up. Mitigation fees have dried up. Don’t ride the gravy train on me. I don’t need grass to tell that if you can’t manage one dollar you don’t get two. Gentlemen, I implore you do not pass this tax increase.”

Jonathan Garrard of Lake Point said his family is still suffering from a loss of income from the recession and can’t afford a tax increase.

“I am opposed to this tax in its entirety,” he said. “If you do pass it, I would like to see an enforceable sunset clause.”

Commissioner Jerry Hurst explained why taxes were not increased earlier while mitigation fees were still coming in.

“Some have said ‘why didn’t we raise taxes earlier and why did we spend mitigation fees,’” he said. “There is a limit as to how much surplus we can hold on to, so those funds had to be spent.”

At the same time, Hurst explained that since joining the commission, he has tried to be frugal.

The health department building and emergency operations center were already under way when he and Bruce Clegg joined the county commission, Hurst explained.

“There was a $9 million remodel project planned for the county building and we stopped that,” he said. “There also was $1 million to be spent for a gun range and we never spent that.”

Hurst also explained that budget cuts started four years ago with a soft hiring freeze that eventually became a hard hiring freeze.

Travel, training, capital projects, and equipment purchase budgets were also reduced, he said.

Prior to making the motion to adopt the property tax rate with the increase, Commissioner Shawn Milne rose to offer an apology.

“I’m sorry,” he said.” We worked really hard and there have been lots of cuts. This is the best we can do with the information we have. We have tightened our belts before we came to you and said we need to raise taxes.”

The commission adopted a combined tax rate of .002176. That rate will be used to calculate tax bills sent out this fall with payment due by Nov. 30, 2013.

If the commissioners had adopted a budget with no tax increase, the tax rate would have been the certified tax rate of .001291. In 2012 the certified tax rate adopted by the county was .001302.

The certified property tax rate is the rate that allows the county to collect the same amount of property tax revenue as it did the previous year, excluding revenue from new growth.

While the certified tax rate has gone up and down over the last 27 years, this is the first time in 27 years that commissioners have adopted a tax rate for the county portion of property tax that is above the certified rate.

In 1987, the last year the county increased the property tax rate over the certified rate, the county collected $1.2 million in property taxes, which accounted for 22 percent of the county’s $5.8 million general fund budget for 1987, according to Tooele County Treasurer Jeremy Walker.

In 2012 the county collected $1.9 million in property taxes, an average increase of $26,000 per year since 1987, to total 9 percent of the $22.8 million 2012 general fund budget, according to Walker’s computations.

Primary residences are given a 45 percent discount on their assessed value before property taxes are calculated, according to state law. Businesses, however receive no discount.

If the commissioners had not decided to raise taxes, the need to generate $2.6 million in budget savings to support the financial recovery plan would have led to the possible lay off of 80 more county employees, according to Milne.

At last weeks’ town hall meeting Tooele County Attorney Doug Hogan said that another round of staff cuts in his office would mean “there will be crimes that would never get prosecuted and victims that would never get justice.”

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