Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge proposed during a Tuesday evening town hall that the county implement a 69% increase to the general levy portion of property taxes, which would give the county an additional $19.8 million in revenue to address deficits and requests from county departments.

The proposed tax hike is smaller than a previously proposed 100% increase that many Utah Valley residents felt was too high. Under Ainge’s proposal, the average county homeowner would pay an additional $85 a year in property taxes.

Tuesday’s town hall was the second held to get public input on the county’s 2020 budget and the proposed property tax increase. The Nov. 6 town hall featured tense moments, with many residents expressing frustration over the additional amount they would have to pay annually in property taxes.

Ainge said the 69% proposed increase would cover the $9.3 million in deficits the county currently has, as well as millions being requested from county departments including the attorney’s, clerk/auditor’s and sheriff’s offices.

Utah County’s spending has outpaced its revenues for years, putting the county’s budget millions of dollars in the red. The Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office estimates that, in the absence of tax increases or budget cuts, the county’s deficit will reach $10.5 million by next year.

On Dec. 2, the Utah Taxpayers Association issued a statement criticizing previous commissioners for not raising taxes or addressing budget deficits earlier.

“Due to a lack of foresight for decades by previous members of the Commission, Utah County has only once in 33 years taken steps to restore purchasing power in their property tax revenue,” the taxpayer association said. “Because of this Utah County has (seen) deficit spending by over $8 million over the last several years, avoiding fiscal responsibility.”

The association said it “recognizes the need for an adjustment in property tax rates,” adding that the current deficit is “not sustainable.”

Ainge said the new revenue would fund a third of requests from various county departments, meaning the majority of departmental requests for funding or staff increases for 2020 would not be granted.

The commissioner proposed increasing the budgets of a number of departments, including a 72.1% increase for the auditor’s office, a 71.1% increase for the elections office, a 25.9% increase for the attorney’s office and a 27.3% increase for the public works department.

Ainge also recommended an 11% increase in inter-agency allocation, some of which would go towards funding public defenders in the county.

Departmental decreases were proposed as well, including a 5% decrease for the recorder’s office, a 2% decrease for the justice court and a 1.1% decrease for the commission itself.

Addressing the size of the auditor’s and elections office increases, Ainge said both are necessary for the offices to serve their essential functions.

The auditor’s office, for example, has not conducted an audit of the sheriff’s office in “a long time,” according to Ainge.

“This department has not even been functioning,” he said, adding that things have gotten significantly better under the leadership of new Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner.

Ainge referred to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s November 2018 comments in which the governor referred to Utah County as “the epicenter of dysfunction” when it comes to elections and ballot processing.

“I don’t like hearing that,” Ainge said.

Some of the new revenue would be set aside into reserves to be used in the case of a natural disaster happening or to fund litigation against the county, Ainge said.

“We have to set aside for the risk that we know about,” he said.

Highland resident Bruce Smith said he opposed the property tax increase and felt the commission should work to cut all unnecessary spending in the county before hiking taxes.

Stephen Lengel, of Provo, asked whether the county’s other two commissioners were on board with Ainge’s proposal.

Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who was in the audience, praised Ainge’s efforts and indicated that he would likely support such an increase.

Ainge said he did not expect Commissioner Bill Lee to support the increase but that only a two-thirds vote would be needed for the proposal to pass.

At last month’s town hall, Lee proposed a number of ways the county can cut back on spending and increase revenue, including renewing a sheriff’s office contract with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and having the county no longer fund death penalty cases.

The commission will finalize the 2020 budget and make a decision regarding a potential property tax increase on Dec. 11.

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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