The Utah County Clerk/Auditor’s Office says a citizen referendum filed in response to a property tax increase passed by the Utah County Commission in December did not meet the threshold of valid signatures, while an attorney for referendum organizers criticized the county’s validation process.

On. Dec. 17, the commission voted to increase the county portion of property taxes by 67.4%, which would cost the average homeowner in the county, who typically pays about $123 annually to the county in property taxes, about $83 more a year.

Dozens of residents who opposed the increase packed commission meetings and town halls in the weeks leading up to the vote. Shortly after the increase passed, some of those residents submitted a petition that would let Utah County voters decide in November whether to increase the county portion of property taxes.

Residents for Responsible Government, which was established after the property tax increase passed, began gathering signatures on Jan. 23, but struggled in part because of confusion over a separate referendum to repeal statewide tax reform passed by the Utah State Legislature. Payson resident Julie Blaney, one of the referendum’s sponsors, said a number of residents she and others approached thought they had already signed “because they signed the state tax referendum.”

On March 3, the day after organizers turned in signature packets to the county for official tallying and signature validation, Blaney said her numbers showed that organizers gathered 23,647 signatures, more than the approximately 21,900 needed for the referendum to pass.

Deputy Clerk/Auditor Josh Daniels said at the time that a number of the signature packets hadn’t been electronically submitted beforehand and that “state law seems to indicate that those are unacceptable packets.”

“I don’t envision them qualifying for the ballot,” Daniels said, noting that they would need an above-average signature validity rate to meet the threshold.

In a letter sent to referendum sponsors on April 1, the Utah County Elections Office said “the signatures submitted on March 2nd as gathered in conjunction with the petition to refer Utah County resolution 2019-221 were insufficient to meet the 21,976 threshold of valid signatures.”

The letter states that 486 total signature packets were submitted to the Clerk/Auditor’s Office, with a total of 22,909 raw signatures. Of these packets, 314 were “properly submitted after previously submitting images as required by law,” the Elections Office said, adding that 16,420 signatures were deemed valid, an 89% validity rate.

“Invalid signatures (from the accepted packets) totaled 1,791,” the letter said. “This is 858 beyond the invalid loss tolerance to qualify.”

Of the invalidated signatures, 73% were from nonregistered residents, 13% were from voters who didn’t live in Utah County, 10% were duplicated signatures, 2% didn’t match the signature of any registered voter and 1% were from circulators who signed their own petition in violation of Utah Code, according to the letter.

“Because the total number of possible valid signatures fell beneath the total required threshold, submitted signatures were not analyzed for compliance with the voter participation area requirements,” the Elections Office said. “However, the County may conduct such an analysis if needed.”

In an interview on Friday, Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner said the referendum’s signature validation rate was “actually fairly high, but it wasn’t anywhere near the 96% that they needed,” meaning that the signature threshold wouldn’t be met even if all 486 packets were counted.

“It’s unfortunate that they came short,” Gardner said. “They put in an effort and they came up a little bit short. But it was close.”

Justin Heideman, an attorney representing the referendum organizers, said on Friday that he rejected the county’s interpretation of Utah Code dealing with digital submissions of signatures.

“There is absolutely no requirement whatsoever that a digital signature be delivered before 5 p.m. on the final day (to submit signatures),” said Heideman. “The concept that they are just going to just out of hand invalidate over 6,000 signatures without a statutory basis to do it is very disturbing to me.”

On Jan. 23, Heideman criticized state law dealing with referendums, calling it a process “designed to be as difficult as possible” and “an active effort to invalidate.”

Gardner said she agreed that the process of accepting signatures “is really onerous and doesn’t make sense.” She added that her office plans to “work with the Legislature to see if we can get it (the referendum process) amended to something that’s more amicable for both us and the petitioners in the future.”

While Heideman said he would be willing to mount a legal challenge against the county on behalf of his clients, Blaney said on Friday that she would rather use her resources and “this community that’s been built” to “get good candidates elected” than spend thousands on a legal fight.

“And that would include a good candidate for county commissioner to work to roll back the tax,” said Blaney. “Because that’s something we can win.”

Commissioner Bill Lee voted against the property tax increase while Commissioners Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie supported it, saying an increase would put Utah County on track to have a balanced budget for the first time in years.

Blaney and others opposed to the increase said it would hurt low-income property owners and small businesses in the county.

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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