Utah County approveS referendum regarding property tax increase

PROVO — Utah County residents will need to collect around 20,000 signatures by March 2 if they want a say in deciding whether or not the county should increase property taxes.

After the Utah County Commission voted 2-1 in December to adopt the upcoming year’s budget, which included a 67.4% tax hike on the county’s portion of property taxes, Payson resident Julie Blaney sought a referendum proposing to freeze the budget at the same level it was in 2018.

Public support was immediate, and Blaney recalls spending the following 14 hours talking on the phone with other Utah County residents interested in helping gather signatures and getting word out about the effort. The referendum was approved this week.

The budget’s tax hike will raise property taxes about $7 a month on an average Utah County home with a value of $334,000. For a year, the same resident’s tax bill would be about $83 more.

The increase will generate an additional $19.3 million, bringing the Utah County 2020 budget to about $104 million, with those extra funds going primarily toward staffing county offices and specific departments’ budget requests.

The Utah County Commission’s decision, which was made in mid-December, attracted public outcry. More than 100 residents showed up at a public hearing prior to the vote, many of them urging commissioners to vote against the budget because of the tax hike.

Blaney was among them.

“Everyone that was at those meetings spoke against the tax increase,” she said. “The citizen voice was loud and clear, ‘Do not increase property taxes, instead look within the county to see where you can make departments more efficient.’”

Blaney said raising property taxes will particularly hurt businesses and residents living on a fixed income, such as senior citizens who might not have an extra $100 hanging around at the end of the year. She also expressed concern that many business owners don’t understand that the tax hike will also impact their personal property tax on their company. According to her, this will likely harm consumers because businesses may be forced to raise prices to account for tax increases.

Utah County last raised property taxes in 1996, and despite being the second-most populous county in the state, has collected one of the lowest taxes and fees per capita, according to 2018 data from the Utah Taxpayer’s Association. This would likely remain so even after the property tax hike, according to county officials.

Blaney said numerous businesses were warm to the idea of hosting signature packages. Signature gathering will begin Friday and Saturday — high traffic days in stores.

According to her effort’s website, called Residents for Responsible Government, residents can sign the petition at storefronts throughout Utah County such as Payson Market, Kohler’s in Lehi, or Meier’s in Highland. She is currently having conversations with other stores and said more may confirm in the coming days.

Utah County Clerk/Auditor Amelia Powers Gardner said the referendum will go on the November ballot if county residents get the required number of signatures by the deadline. However, what would come next would be complex as the referendum regards the entire 2020 budget, not specifically the property tax hike.

The budget would already have been in effect for almost 11 months.

“Even if they get the signatures, we’re not going to go fire people on the off chance it might get on the ballot,” Powers Gardner said. “If it goes on the ballot, and if it were to pass, the county would actually go into debt and we’d have to bond against that debt.”

She said the commissioners will look at the property tax value in June and set the rate based off of what the county’s properties are worth, what revenues are received and the projected revenues.

County commissioner Tanner Ainge told the Deseret News in December that he proposed the tax hike to help push Utah County toward a more sustainable financial future, as well as respond to the “irresponsible management” of prior county officials.

According to Ainge, previous county officials allowed the tax rate to decrease repeatedly each year and forced the county into deficit spending, meaning county officials dipped into “rainy day fund” reserves. This year’s budget, he said, will “end deficit spending and start saving for the future” for the first time in three years by “cutting spending and adjusting revenue.”

Besides the property tax hike, the budget also cuts $200,000 from the county’s justice court, around $20,000 for the sale of four county vehicles, $103,000 from the auditor/clerk’s office, and thousands more from other areas.

Ainge, who voted in favor of the budget, declined to comment on the referendum.

Commissioner Bill Lee, the sole vote against the budget, said he neither encourages or discourages the referendum. He is taking a neutral stance because the county faces some risk with the referendum out there. For this reason he feels a duty to step back, he said.

Lee said he voted against the budget because he felt the tax hike was extreme and he disagreed with the philosophy of “just ripping the Band-Aid off.” He’d proposed a different plan that also raised property taxes, but “substantially less than the 67%.”

Lee said he thinks the county commissioners could potentially have to sit down and have a conversation if the signatures are obtained by the deadline. That conversation would revolve around what the commissioners should do because if the referendum went on the ballot and passed, the county can’t spend money it doesn’t or might not have. He added that the commissioners would likely need to “pull back and reevaluate” what to do going forward.

“That would need to be a conversation that we’d have, and it would be an uncomfortable conversation obviously, so that’s kind of the route I’d assume we’d have to take,” Lee said.

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