PROVO — Utah County commissioners on Wednesday voted to cut back about 25% of a property tax increase that was approved in late 2019, resulting in a nearly $5 million reduction in overall property tax collection.
While the motion to reduce the property tax was approved by the commission's two members, Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee said in a statement afterward that the reduction will not result in any layoffs among county employees. In addition, he said modifications made to a budgeting model Wednesday account for possible future new jobs, as well as wage increases and benefit needs among county employees over the next decade.
"The massive property tax increase of 2019 led to some unnecessary bloat in our county government, which is why I opposed that increase," his statement read, in part. "While today's action brings us closer to the appropriate level of county government, I remain committed to seeking further reductions to Utah County's certified property tax rate in the future."
Lee and Utah County Commissioner Sakievich announced last month they planned to revisit the property tax increase, which the county commission passed 2-1 in 2019. The measure raised property taxes by about 67%, resulting in a little more than $19 million in new revenue for the county.
The two members who voted in favor of it, Nathan Ivie and Tanner Ainge, have either been voted out of office or resigned since it passed in December 2019. Ainge and Ivie both said at the time that it was needed to cover needs within the county departments.
There were mixed opinions during Wednesday's meeting prior to the final vote.
Jeremy Walker, director of financial services for Utah County, said he was concerned if the county was making its decision based solely on the 10-year economic model. He cautioned that because, as he put it, it was a beta version and "not a scalpel to do surgery with."
"We recommended all the changes that have been proposed with the exception of the reduction in property tax revenue, specifically because the reduction in property tax revenue is not matched with a corresponding cut to expenses, which would be the preferred method of property taxes with ongoing expense reduction," he told the commission.
Utah County Clerk/auditor Amelia Powers Gardner, on the other hand, said she and the team she represented viewed the proposal as "reasonable," especially given a few economic factors where Utah County bucked national economic trends tied to COVID-19. For instance, she said economists projected a nationwide reduction in sales tax revenues, which didn't happen as much in Utah County.
That's coupled with a low unemployment rate in the county and good use of economic stimulus checks. She added that it was still important to keep the budget balanced, which she believed the 10-year model showed.
"I think this adjustment that I'm seeing today still puts us on a good path to deficit spend but still gives us the ability to reduce those tax rates, so I'm supportive," she said.
Meanwhile, some residents provided feedback on the tax rate. Dale Summerhays, a county resident, told the commission that many individuals can't afford large-scale property tax increases.
He shared a story of a public meeting in Payson over schools, where a resident said they didn't have marble floors in their home so it didn't make sense that a school would propose that. Summerhays' takeaway from that moment was that it was a "cry for help" in that the resident couldn't afford that luxury or a tax increase to support it for the school.
"The message there is: be careful with the budget. Put it in line with what the taxpayers have and make the cuts where you can and still function properly as Utah County," he said. "Nobody wants a county that can't function because of a lack of money but if you can cut out the extravagances and those kinds of things, that's where we can make a difference."
Others said they supported the tax reduction to balance out the impacts of the COVID-19 recession without cuts to benefits for county employees.
In the end, the commission approved a cut of a little more than $4.8 million to the property tax increase, or about a 25% reduction. Lee mentioned in a presentation before the vote that the measure as a "first round" of adjustments to the county budget and that he expected future changes to account for any situations that arise.
"We're going to have to go through some processes to get to where we would like to be," he said, adding that his goals for the county budget were reducing property tax rates, while keeping all current staff, avoiding department budgets and keeping a plan for the future.
In a statement afterward, Sakievich said that less than 7% of property taxes go toward the county government's statutory responsibilities. He added that he anticipated "further reductions as we head into the coming weeks."
"Today's budget discussion was limited to budgetary revenues and expenditures," his statement continued. "We did not reduce budget appropriations of county departments' 2021 budgets. I focused on the "ebb and flow" of natural growth of new adults entering the workforce and is as if COVID-19 federal grants did not exist. I also kept in mind the residents (widows and the wealthy) and on large and small businesses that provide the engine for employment options."