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Utah County Commission approves budget changes, clearing way for property tax rollback

By Connor Richards daily Herald - | Apr 21, 2021
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Community members gather during an organizational meeting concerning a citizen referendum to reject a property tax increase in Utah County held Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, at the former site of Last Course Dessert Studio in Orem. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Petition packets are stacked ready to be given out during an organizational meeting concerning a citizen referendum to reject a property tax increase in Utah County held Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, at the former site of Last Course Dessert Studio in Orem. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee looks over items on the meeting agenda during a commission meeting held at the Utah County Administration Building in Provo on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee listens to a speaker during a commission meeting held at the Utah County Administration Building in Provo on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

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Utah County Commissioner Tom Sakievich listens as Eric Edwards, deputy director of the Utah County Health Department, speaks to members of the media at a mass vaccination center erected inside the former Shopko building in Spanish Fork on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. Isaac Hale, Special to the Daily Herald

The Utah County Commission voted on Wednesday to approve changes to the 2021 budget, a move clearing the way for the governing body to roll back a controversial 2019 property tax increase.

The budget amendments, which were put forward by Commissioner Bill Lee, include a $4.8 million decrease in the county’s projected property tax revenues for 2021, which Lee said is equal to about a 25% reduction of the 2019 increase to the portion of property taxes collected by the county.

Additionally, the changes approved on Wednesday include increasing sales tax revenue projections by $2.8 million as a result of Utah County’s economy outperforming forecasts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lee referred to the changes, which he and Commissioner Tom Sakievich approved on a 2-0 vote, as a “preliminary step … as we look further into what we can do” to reduce the property tax rate. He noted that the commission won’t set this year’s property tax rate until June 30.

“If this passes today, that $4.8 million in the way of a tax rate decrease will be easy, because we’ve already kind of set it up,” the commissioner said on Wednesday.

The proposal to decrease projected property tax revenues passed without support from county finance staff.

Jeremy Walker, director of financial services, told the commissioners that finance staff recommended the proposed changes “with the exception of the reduction in property tax revenue, specifically because the reduction in property tax revenue is not matched with the corresponding cut to expenses, which would be the preferred method of matching property taxes with ongoing expense reduction.”

Walker, who noted that the finance team recently grew from two to six individuals “in due part because of this tax increase,” warned that the proposed property tax cut “could have a dramatic impact” on various county funds, not just the $100 million general fund that was discussed in the meeting.

The financial services director also emphasized “caution” over a 10-year budget projection tool that both commissioners said they had been using to look at the budget, which he noted was a “beta version.”

“And if it’s the only model that’s being used, we have concerns about that,” he said.

Lee acknowledged that the projection tool wouldn’t provide “perfect projections” but added that “that’s why forecasting budgets should always be done in pencil. Because as you forecast into the future, it’s going to take some erasing here and there.”

The commissioners clashed with budget staff earlier this year over a proposal to move the staff from under the Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office to under the commission. The change, which Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson called “insane,” was approved and later rescinded.

Multiple residents spoke in favor of efforts to reduce the property tax rate, which a previous makeup of the commission approved in December 2019 in an effort to balance the county budget and accommodate a rapidly growing population.

“I think we all realize there was a major problem last year with the taxes,” said Dale Summerhays. “It’s a serious problem because it’s going to tax people out of their houses if it keeps up at this rate.”

Summerhays also urged the commission to do something “to prevent this thing (a property tax increase) from happening in the future.”

Lee said he will continue “to look at reducing the property tax and analyzing where we possibly have over-collected as well.”

“Is there more? Is there possibly more? I hope so, because I think that there can be,” he said.

The commissioner continued, “I believe we have a mandate from the citizens in this county to be fiscally responsible, to be limited in what we do, and to find ways to relieve some of that burden that they have on them.”

One resident asked why the commissioners were making budget decisions while there is a vacancy on the commission. Sakievich said that “the vacancy was unexpected” and the commissioners “had (already) set up a process to begin to have this dialogue, and we are constrained by a certain number of weeks to have it completed by.”

The commissioner acknowledged that the vacancy had “made things difficult” but added that he believed “we can still move through the process to at least address areas where we think we can find efficiencies and move forward, with just the two of us.”

The Utah County Republican Party will select a candidate to fill the commission vacancy on Saturday.

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