Utah County’s three commissioners were met by frustrated, heated county residents Wednesday evening during the first public town hall since the commission proposed a property tax increase.
The tax hike was proposed last month during a budget discussion in which the commission worked to address the county’s deficit, which has increased for years and is expected to reach $10.5 million in the red by 2020.
In its current form, the proposal would double the general levy portion of property taxes — which makes up 6.8% percent of the total property tax distribution — meaning that the average county homeowner would pay an additional $123.45 in taxes a year, or $10.29 a month.
This is the maximum increase being proposed, and it could be lower if the commission finds additional areas to cut back on expenses.
The increase would give Utah County an additional $28.6 million in revenue to address what has been referred to as “critical deficiencies in essential resources, including health, law enforcement and attorney services.
The idea of increasing property taxes has come up in previous years, but the commission has rejected implementing a tax hike and has instead dealt with deficits by dipping into the county’s reserve funds and finding ways to cut spending.
At Wednesday’s town hall, which was held at the Utah County Health and Justice Building, Commissioner Bill Lee proposed a number of cuts in order to balance next year’s budget, as well as using $2.9 million from county reserves with an understanding that the money would be returned at a later point.
Lee suggested that the county no longer pursue capital punishment cases, which would save the county $1 million annually. Instead, the county would pursue other charges, such as life without parole, and not push for death sentences.
Lee also said the Utah County Sheriff’s Office should consider re-entering a previously terminated contract with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement that allows for immigration detainees to be held in the county jail. The contract is worth around $4.5 million in annual revenue, according to Lee.
As an alternative, Lee said the county should ask the Sheriff’s Office for $2.4 million that it said it received for backing out of the ICE agreement, an amount that has not materialized.
The Sheriff’s Office terminated the contract in December 2016 due to a lack of resources for housing inmates, the Deseret News reported. As a result, detainees being held in Utah were transferred out of state, in some cases as far as Alabama.
Various county departments who receive revenue through the general fund have asked from an additional $14 million for 2020, according to a presentation during Wednesday’s town hall. The three commissioners went through these requests and ranked them as being high, medium-high, medium, or low priority.
Lee suggested that only high and medium-high requests be approved, which means $3.3 million in requests would be approved and $10.9 million would be rejected.
The county could also request additional funds from the State Legislature, Lee said.
In all, Lee said his proposals would save the county more than $34 million.
Commissioner Tanner Ainge said he supports the majority of the cuts proposed by Lee, but that the “math was flawed” and would alone not balance the 2020 budget.
“I’ll just tell you … those holes are not filled with just those cuts,” said Ainge.
Commissioner Nathan Ivie said that, while he also supports most of Lee’s proposed cuts, that many county departments are in serious need of increased funding.
The Utah County Attorney’s Office, for example, currently has attorneys that handle between 200 and 250 cases a year, significantly more than the bar association’s recommendation of 90 cases a year per attorney.
Ivie added that “serious” crime has increased in the 15 years in the county, and that law enforcement needs appropriate staffing levels to ensure residents are protected.
The town hall became heated during moments that focused on the proposed property tax increase.
During a presentation by Utah County deputy clerk/auditor Josh Daniels, in which Daniels was describing the decrease in property tax number amounts since 1985 when adjusted for inflation, one audience member accused Daniels of using selective graphs and numbers to guide an audience toward a certain conclusion.
Daniels responded that he was presenting the relevant information and that additional graphs and information would be posted on the county auditor’s website.
Another audience member asked why his property taxes seemed to increase year after year if general levy rates have dropped consistently. Daniels responded that this would happen if a person’s house appreciated at a faster rate than other houses in the county, or if there was an increase in another portion of the property tax pie, such the portion that goes to school districts.
The commissioners will discuss the potential property tax increase further during a public hearing at 6 p.m. on Dec. 11 at the Utah County Administration Building.