Opponents of a recently passed Utah County property tax increase are struggling to gather the required number of signatures for a referendum to be placed on the November ballot as the deadline approaches.

Last December, the Utah County Commission approved a 67.4% increase to the portion of property taxes that the county collects in an effort to balance the county’s 2020 budget and fund requests from various departments, including the Clerk/Auditor’s Office and Sheriff’s Office.

The decision upset many residents, some of whom filed a citizen referendum with the county that would let voters decide in November whether to approve the increase.

Organizers began gathering signatures on Jan. 22 after the referendum was approved by the county. Julie Blaney, of Payson, who is one of the referendum’s sponsors, said she and others have faced hurdles when trying to get residents to sign their name.

The referendum needs at least 22,000 signatures by March 2 to make it on the November ballot, although organizers say they want more than this since some signatures are likely to be deemed invalid.

“Our numbers are not very good at this point,” Blaney said on Thursday. “We are just over 5,000 signatures.”

One of the biggest challenges, Blaney said, is dealing with confusion over a different referendum, the one aimed at challenging statewide tax reform passed by the Utah Legislature during a special legislative session in December. More than 26,500 Utah County residents signed that referendum, according to numbers from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office.

“That’s just really been frustrating,” Blaney said about “the number of people that think they’ve already signed because they signed the state tax referendum.”

The Legislature repealed the statewide tax reform on Jan. 28, the second day of the 2020 legislative session, making the referendum effectively moot. Blaney said some people she’s talked to have asked her why she’s still gathering signatures when the governor repealed the tax reform, not realizing this is an entirely different tax and referendum.

“It’s amazing to me that so many people still say, ‘well, the governor repealed that,’” said Blaney. “I don’t know why homeowners aren’t more aware of what happened with the county increasing the property tax.”

Blaney said most residents are receptive to the cause and willing to sign the referendum when she explains that it is unrelated to the repealed statewide tax reform. Still, the confusion has made things hard for the 30 or so organizers who are gathering signatures throughout the county.

Another hurdle has been that large chain retailers haven’t let organizers get signatures in their stores, according to Blaney. As a result, organizers have had to go door-to-door or gather signatures in smaller businesses where there is less foot traffic.

The website http://rejecttaxincrease.com lists places in each city where residents can sign the referendum. Blaney said organizers have had the most success at In & Out Emissions in Spanish Fork and Gunnies Sporting Goods and Western Wear in Orem.

“We’re still feeling a great deal of support from small business in the county,” she said.

With a little over two weeks left to gather signatures, Blaney said she and other organizers aren’t giving up.

The property tax increase passed by the commission would raise the average Utah County homeowner’s annual tax bill by about $83. Blaney said fixed income seniors and low-income residents would be the most impacted, as well as small businesses that would see their business personal property taxes go up.

“This double hit to the small businesses, it’s almost a fatal blow,” said Blaney.

Blaney added that businesses will likely pass these costs onto consumers in the county.

“They are not going to eat this loss,” she said. “So you (the consumer) will pay for it over and over and over again.”

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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