As the Utah County Commission prepares to finalize the 2020 budget and decide the fate of a proposed property tax increase, the commissioners have been active in soliciting public feedback and explaining the reasoning behind their decision-making.
Commissioner Tanner Ainge held a town hall Tuesday where he proposed a 69% increase to the county portion of property taxes and walked through budget cuts and increases for each county department. Such an increase would cost the average homeowner in Utah County an additional $85 a year.
Commissioner Nathan Ivie was the latest to hold a town hall in preparation for Dec. 11, when the budget will be finalized. During the Thursday event, Ivie echoed the proposals made by Ainge and indicated that he will be voting for a property tax increase of some kind.
“I tend to agree with (Ainge’s proposal),” Ivie said. “Generally speaking.”
Like Ainge, Ivie referenced a statement written earlier this week by the Utah Taxpayer Association, an organization Ivie described as “one of the most conservative taxpayer watchdog groups there is in the nation,” in which the group “recognize(d) the need for an adjustment in property tax rates” in Utah County.
In its statement, the taxpayer association said that property tax revenues in the county have grown 196% in real dollars since 1986. The population grew 269% in the same time period, meaning that “property taxes have grown 73% slower than population and inflation combined.”
“We’re shifting from a rural county to an urban county,” Ivie said. “And with that shift in urbanization comes increased demand on government services.”
For the past three years, county spending has outpaced revenue and caused the county to dip into reserve funds, something widely recognized as an unsustainable practice. The county is required to have at least 13% of the annual budget in a reserve account, Ivie said, “and we are at that point.”
“It concerns me to continue down the line of deficit spending,” he added.
Ivie said he and the other commissioners have “heavily scrutinized” budget increase requests from different county departments and combed through current budgets to find areas to cut.
For example, the commission decided to cut the Miss Utah County pageant “because that was a non-essential government service,” Ivie said. The commission also elected to drop the county’s membership Utah Association of Counties, which costs about $165,000 a year.
“We’ve been very diligent in trying to scrub this thing down and find areas of savings,” said Ivie.
At a town hall on Nov. 6, Commissioner Bill Lee suggested the county no longer pursue the death penalty in murder cases, which would save an estimated $1 million per case. Ivie said Thursday he “would be comfortable with us not having the death penalty because of fiscal reasons,” but added that it is the state Legislature’s job, not the county’s, to debate whether capital punishment is “right or wrong.”
But even with cuts, Ivie said budget increases are necessary for the county to provide “essential government services,” including prosecution and public defense, law enforcement, elections services and human resources.
Ivie said boosting funding for the Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office is necessary for the office to do its job.
“We have departments (that), because of the staffing levels and people stretched so thin in the auditor’s department … haven’t been audited for years,” Ivie said.
One of these departments is the Sheriff’s Office, which Ivie said currently has 20 vacant positions at the county jail.
“And we’ve lost some incredibly good employees, some longtime employees, who have gone to other agencies” in counties that offer better pay, the commissioner said.
An audience member asked whether, if the property tax proposal passed, more increases would be approved year after year.
“I can commit for myself (that) if this (proposal) happened, we’re done,” Ivie said, adding that he would recommend the rate remain the same for 5-7 years.
From the audience, Ainge said he appreciated Ivie, a fiscal conservative, supporting measures that have “no upside politically.”
“I am kind of fed up with politicians that just seem to do things based on exactly what the reaction will be … strictly on party lines or based on what will help them get their own reelection,” Ainge said.
Most Utah County residents, both at town halls and on social media, have been upset at the idea of their annual tax bill increasing. One man at Tuesday’s hall, however, said he supported the increase and feels it is necessary to address the county’s needs.
“Our county is bleeding,” the man said. “This is decades of needs that have piled up.”