2020 budget and proposed tax increase discussion 05

Utah County Commissioners Bill Lee, Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie listen as Josh Daniels, Utah County deputy clerk/auditor, speaks during a town hall meeting concerning the 2020 budget and the proposed tax increase held Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, at the Utah County Health and Justice Building in Provo. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge recently proposed 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. We’d like to make clear our full support of the proposal.

We’ve seen some accuse the proposal as “outlandishly high jacking up of prices” and such. While 69% seems like a big number, some simple clarifications can reveal how rational the proposal actually is.

This is not an increase of 69% of all your property taxes. Rather, it’s a 69% increase of the small portion of your property taxes that comes from the county. Currently, the average Utah County homeowner pays the county about $123 in property taxes annually, which is only 6.8% of the total property taxes paid. Without a property tax increase, the county’s 2020 budget would be out of balance by $10.5 million, not including funding requests from various county departments.

Increased funding to essential county departments is badly needed. As Commissioner Nathan Ivie said at a recent public meeting, the money from the tax increase would go towards the County Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Office and towards making elections more safe and secure. We find it a bit hypocritical that many local citizens can voice their firm support for the men and women in blue who protect our cities, but then become furious at a proposal of a small tax increase to help our officers who are currently suffering from major underfunding problems.

As reported by Herald writer Connor Richards, the county’s Truth In Taxation process that went into effect in 1986 limits the ability of local governments to raise taxes. As property values increase, the relative rate of taxes homeowners pay goes down, meaning homeowners pay the same dollar amount every year regardless of the value of their home, Daniels said.

Because of the Truth In Taxation process, Utah County’s property tax rate went from 0.087% in 2015 to 0.067% in 2019, according to Daniels. Additionally, the average person in Utah County pays less to the county in property taxes than they did 30 years ago, according to Daniels.

And yes, the county commissioners have looked into cutting spending in “nonessential” areas, such as the Miss Utah County pageant and the County Fair (while these may be considered nonessential, we do not agree with pulling funding from these programs that provide the culture and celebration for our county).

But even after stripping down to the bare bones, the fact of the matter is, we as citizens of the county need to pay just a bit more in taxes in order for essential government programs to continue serving us at full capacity.

Along with supporting Ainge’s tax increase proposal, we also support Ainge and Ivie’s action of voting Commissioner Bill Lee out as chair during Tuesday’s public meeting. Lee’s claim at the meeting that he will never increase taxes ever is duplicitous and unhelpful; he represents the people to the government but also needs to make sure residents understand what our government operations require.

Of course no one is going to say, “Yes, please take more taxes out of my bank account” without sound explanation of why, and Lee is withholding those explanations from the county’s citizens.

Additionally, his suggestions of how to come up with the needed money elsewhere are ill-informed. Notably, Lee suggested reentering a contract with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to house detained undocumented residents at the county jail. While Lee pointed out the contact could bring in $4.5 million, former Sheriff Jim Tracy quickly responded that the revenue simply reimbursed the county’s costs — there was no significant windfall for the county aside from a small stipend that helped pay down jail construction costs.

We can imagine that Lee has been the odd man out on many key issues, including the budget and taxes. The leadership change reflects that Ivie and Ainge appear to be more aligned on these issues and more focused on finding realistic, if painful, solutions to a slow-ticking time bomb that previous commissions were content to let fester until now.

At the Wednesday public meeting, Rusty Cannon, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, a fiscally conservative organization that issued a statement supporting a property tax increase, spoke in Wednesday’s meeting. He said the commission’s consideration of a tax increase had been “thoughtful, deep and long” and thanked them for it.

When the Utah Taxpayers Association is in support of a tax increase, that’s a pretty sure sign that the proposal is sound and justified. We can’t remember the last time the association spoke in favor of increasing taxes.

Any tax increase is painful, but this one appears to be necessary to raise revenue to administer a quickly growing county. The county government hasn’t necessarily been able to benefit from the growth with increased tax revenue, but its obligations have only grown.