County seeks 9% tax hike

Mosquito board, library request more funding amidst $1M shortfall

Grand County Council Chair Evan Clapper reviews paperwork during Tuesday’s Grand County Council meeting. Photo by Doug McMurdo

Staring down a budget shortfall of more than $1 million following near universal wage and salary increases last year, the Grand County Council will seek the first property tax increase in a dozen years.

Members in a 5-2 vote Tuesday, Oct. 15, agreed to notice their intent to raise property taxes for the county and library. Meanwhile, the Moab Mosquito Abatement District will seek a tax increase that would add about $80,000 to its operating fund.

What is the bottom line if the increase is ultimately approved? According to Grand County Clerk-Auditor and Budget Officer Chris Baird, the owner of a median-priced $242,000 home who resides in the all three districts – county, library and MMAD – would see their property tax increase 9.23 percent, or an additional $168.48 per year, from $311.85 to $480.33. The increase for a $242,000 businesses situated in the three districts will increase $306.34, from $567.01 to $873.35.

The MMAD rate for the same homeowner will rise nearly $8, from $23.69 to $31.62 and the same business owner will see his or her rate increase $14.42 a year, from $43.08 to $57.50.

It is possible the Moab Valley Fire Protection District could seek its own property tax increase. The district is more than $200,000 in the red this budget cycle, for the most part due to the cost of responding to incidents outside of the district’s boundaries – a cost the county is obliged to pick up.

The council’s more conservative members, Curtis Wells and Rory Paxman–without offering comments–voted against the tax increase. Neither attended a joint county council-budget advisory board workshop held earlier Tuesday to discuss the need for the tax increase, a topic that Baird has repeatedly mentioned in public meetings for more than a year.

It’s important to note Tuesday’s action does not obligate the council to enact the increase. A Truth in Taxation hearing will be held Dec. 3 and the council will vote on the proposed increase Dec. 17. If it is approved, it will have to be set at the amount approved Tuesday or a lesser amount. It cannot be increased, according to Baird.

Members of the Grand County Council, Budget Advisory Board and County Attorney Christina Sloan, bottom right, discuss a $1 million budget shortfall during a workshop on a proposed property tax increase Tuesday, Oct. 15. Photo by Doug McMurdo

Here’s how the numbers break down, according to discussions during the workshop: The increase is roughly $2.1 million, a 75 percent increase in the general fund operations budget line item. The increase for the library – also largely due to salary and wage bumps approved last year – is $275,400, a more than 38 percent increase over the current budget.

The infusion of revenue will cover the 2019 salary and benefit increases, the 2020 benefit renewal rates – which climbed sharply this year – a 1.7 percent cost of living allowance; $500,000 in capital projects, primarily to cover the county’s share of a communications project; $627,500 to cover new positions, and $160,000 in new facility debt.

Council members who attended the workshop voiced concerns over public backlash, which they said they know is coming, but it became equally clear there were no other options other than to cut positions until the salary and benefit costs make up the shortfall, which would cripple the county’s ability to provide services.

Last year’s decision to approve the raises even without a revenue stream to cover them was not done lightly. The county was losing employees at an alarming rate because it could not compete for workers with other regional governments or the private sector, according to myriad public discussions going back at least two years.

Member Jaylyn Hawks at Tuesday’s workshop asked if the county could encourage early retirement, but most who were eligible have done so.

And while there was no appetite to lay off workers, the need to hire additional employees remains a serious one, especially for Sheriff Steve White, who is short two deputies to work at the jail, leading to a potentially dangerous situation with only one on duty at times. He also is short in the dispatch department and needs patrol deputies and sergeants in order to get up to speed. There was also discussion of hiring a part-time public information officer for the sheriff’s office who might do other work for the county. Samantha Bonsack has been filling that role on a volunteer basis and White said she has proved to be an asset.

Grand County Clerk-Auditor and Budget Officer Chris Baird discusses a potential property tax increase during a joint workshop Tuesday. Photo by Doug McMurdo

Virtually every department is short employees, however. Also, a needs assessment identified more than 20 new positions that would have to be created over the next few years.

The $160,000 in new facility debt was penciled in due to the potential purchase of Utah State University-Moab’s current campus on 200 South.

Letters signed by Grand County Council Chair Evan Clapper will be sent out to property taxpayers explaining the intent to raise taxes and will provide information on what their liability will be on an individual basis.

In the meantime, county officials will continue to hold weekly budget meetings in an effort to find additional potential cuts that could reduce the burden on taxpayers. “We recognize the financial burden that any tax increase creates for taxpayers,” the letter reads.

For those who earn less than $33,500 a year and are over 64 years old, disabled, a widow or widower or suffer extreme hardship, help is available to potentially reduce taxes. Steps to take are included in the letter.