When the Utah County Commission debated whether to increase the county portion of property taxes in its meeting last Tuesday, Julie Blaney of Payson said she would be prepared to file a referendum if the tax hike passed.

It passed, and Blaney stuck to her word. Last week, she submitted a copy of the proposal, which would raise the portion of property taxes collected by the county by 67.4% in an effort to leave the increase up for popular vote.

The increase, which goes into effect next year, would cost the average county homeowner about $83 annually. Monthly, it would increase their taxes by just less than $7.

“It would be a big win for the taxpayers for us to win on this one,” Blaney said. “And all we’re asking is that it go to the voters to decide. Let the voters decide if they want to pay more property tax.”

Blaney said she spent Monday working with an attorney to modify the referendum, which would freeze the county budget at the same level it was in 2018, and submit additional paperwork. The county has 20 days to vet the referendum, she said, at which point, if it is approved, she and others will start gathering signatures.

After months of debate about how to balance the county’s 2020 budget, the commission voted 2-1 in favor of the property tax increase. Commissioners Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie voted in favor of the increase while Commissioner Bill Lee voted against it.

Both at town halls and in commission meetings, some of which were packed with hundreds of upset residents, Ivie and Ainge said that the increase is necessary to avoid deficit spending and to fund “essential” government services provided by the county.

The increase will bring the county an additional $19.3 million in revenue to fund staffing and budget requests from the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, attorney’s office and clerk/auditor’s office, among others. Ivie has said budget increases are vital for these departments to serve their necessary functions, such as keeping the public safe and making sure elections are efficient and secure.

Blaney said she didn’t think these budget increases were necessary and that a better way to balance the budget would be finding cuts across departments.

“They just need to learn to live within their budget,” said Blaney.

When finalizing the 2020 budget, the commission voted to make hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cuts, including of the Miss Utah County Pageant and the STEM portion of the 4-H program, a youth development service offered through partnership with Utah State University Extension.

Increasing property taxes will not only hurt homeowners, Blaney said, but the community as a whole. She said she believes businesses will pass the costs on to consumers by raising the prices of goods and services, adding that businesses would be “hit double” since their business personal property taxes will also go up.

“It’s our fixed income seniors and the poor of the community that are going to suffer the most,” Blaney said.

On Monday evening, more than a dozen Utah County residents met in Payson to discuss the referendum and their options for fighting against the tax increase.

Saratoga Springs resident Steve Taylor, who has spent decades working as a financial officer for medical institutions, said private businesses typically figure out their budgets by matching expenditures with revenue while leaving some excess and room for profits.

This is not how the county sets its budget, Taylor said, adding that the commission asks department heads what they need and adjust the budget accordingly.

“The county cannot afford to live at (its) current standard,” said Deborah Herbert of Mapleton. “They need to cut.”

Blaney said that if the county approves of the referendum they would need to collect more than 21,000 signatures of Utah County residents in 45 days. She said an attorney she met with recommended they gather about 50,000 signatures in case there are issues with some of them, such as a signature not matching the one the county has on file.

The residents at Monday’s meeting talked about steps they need to take to gather signatures, including a billboard campaign, social media marketing and getting business cards that redirect to a website in support of the referendum.

“The reason we’re here is there’s a ton of work to be done,” Blaney said.

Russel Smith of Payson walked through a website he designed, rejecttaxincrease.com, and explained how signature packets would be spread out to each city. He said the website will not be fully functioning until the county decides whether to approve the referendum.

Residents will have 10 days to appeal the county’s decision if the referendum is rejected, said Blaney. The group will hold another meeting in January after a decision is made.

When asked about the referendum, Ivie said he would never “object to somebody that desires to go through the legal process of filing a referendum.”

“I always support the citizen’s rights,” the commissioner said. “And the right to referendum is one of those.”

After two months of conversing with the public about the property tax increase, Ivie said he felt like “the vast majority of citizens have the exact same opinion (as) me when they understand all of the budget process.”

“Nobody wants to raise taxes,” he said. “But we all realized it was something that had to be done.”

Ivie said that all three commissioners agreed to similar spending levels, including Lee, who voted against the tax increase.

“Just two of us were willing to pay for it,” said Ivie.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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