Residents cram San Juan County tax increase hearing as budget woes foment worries

San Juan County Commissioners sit at a meeting at Spanish Trail Arena. File photo by Doug McMurdo

Nearly 80 county residents crowded the San Juan County Commission Chambers Dec. 4 for a Truth in Taxation hearing regarding proposed property tax increases. San Juan County Commissioners are poised to consider the increases when they finalize the 2020 county budget before the end of December.

Three funds administered by San Juan County propose tax increases beyond the certified tax rate. The proposals would increase property tax bills for those entities by approximately 23 percent.

Increases are considered for the county general fund, library fund, and public health fund. The general fund accounts for approximately 18 percent of the total property tax bill, with the library fund accounting for 3.7 percent, and the public health fund accounting for 1.2 percent of the total property tax bill.

The schools are the largest single taxing entity, accounting for roughly 56 percent of the total property tax bill. In total, the proposed changes would increase the property tax on a $200,000 home by $79.31, and $360.50 for a $500,000 business. The bulk of the meeting was split between presentations by the taxing entities and public comment.

Bill Boyle, Milt Pipkin, Phil Glaze, Victor Schafer, Cheryl Bowers, Joe B. Lyman, Phil Lyman, Ty Lewis, Lee Bennett, Merri Shumway, Ammon Boswell, and Gary Guymon offered public comment.

County Clerk John David Nielson outlined the preliminary budgets under consideration. Nielson and County Administrator Mack McDonald discussed the proposed general fund increase.

McDonald said the general fund balance has dropped to less than $1 million, after being up to $10 million as recently as 2014. The drop is due to several issues, including rising prices, the cost of litigation, and budget shortfalls in other county fund balances, including emergency management and ambulance services.

The revenue side of the equation is also impacted, including inflation, and a drop in the property tax base.

McDonald said the increase will be used to shore up fund balances, stop staffing losses in the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department, upgrade aging television services, keep up with infrastructure and maintenance, and deal with a problem of county staff with multiple job responsibilities.

Library Director Pat Smith discussed the proposed increase in the library fund. Smith said the library system has not had a tax levy increase in many years.

The cost of services, supplies, and materials continues to rise and tax revenue no longer covers library costs.

Overages are covered by the library fund, which was designed for capital improvements. This fund is whittled away and, without a tax increase, will be depleted in three years. The fund balance dropped from $587,779 in 2015 to $384,081 in 2018. The system operates seven branches and 13 employees.

Public Health Director Kirk Benge and Counseling Director Tammy Squires discussed the proposed changes in the public health fund. Both entities are supported by the public health fund, which has dropped from nearly $600,000 in 2011 to less than $50,000.

Much of the decrease is due to increased costs as the public health department opened a separate standalone operation in San Juan County. In 2018, property taxes for the fund were $250,000. The local funds brought federal and state funding of more than $2.3 million. The public health department has 12 employees, while San Juan Counseling has 32 employees.