If you own a home in Grand County, you might notice a strange discrepancy when you open up this year’s property tax statement.
Your overall bill will be lower than it was in 2017, according to Grand County Treasurer Chris Kauffman, but more of your taxes will be going to the Grand County School District.
The Grand County Board of Education voted 4-0 earlier this month to adopt the school district’s tax rates for 2018, and the board’s action boosts the district’s share of residential property taxes by 20.07 percent.
However, Kauffman noted that many taxpayers won’t feel the pinch. That’s because a county reassessment of commercial businesses and other “real property” boosted their assessed value by a whopping $198 million, shifting the burden away from residential property owners.
“It was just off the charts,” Kauffman told the Moab Sun News. “… That’s the big story to me: Commercial went way up, which is pushing down property taxes for everyone else.”
But local resident Petenia Pfnister questioned recent comments in support of the increase. She suggested that people shouldn’t try to minimize the impacts on local homeowners and others by noting that businesses face the biggest brunt of property tax increases.
“At what point does somebody say, ‘No,’ because you’re taxing the people who are trying to keep this county running, plus keep the people employed,” Pfnister said during the education board’s Aug. 7 meeting.
Along similar lines, local resident Dwight Johnston said that “everybody” is always willing to charge businesses more. But they’re making a big mistake, he said.
“There’s a lot of those little businesses up and down this town that I can name you (for whom) those tax increases are painful,” Johnston said. “There’s a lot of trust-fund babies in this town, but there’s a whole lot of people trying to stay in town that aren’t.”
But Grand County High School teacher Hank Postma praised the board for taking the steps it did to improve teachers’ salaries, noting that he’s seen firsthand the problem that the district faces in terms of attracting and retaining teachers.
“I believe that hurts our child’s education, having that churn year in and year out, and I want to thank the board for working to fix that,” Postma said.
This year marked the first time in five years that the Grand County Assessor’s Office reassessed the values of commercial properties, leading to a 17.28 percent increase over last year’s countywide valuation of $1.1 billion. As those values go up, Kauffman said, the tax rate goes down to achieve the same budget, and when businesses pay more, homeowners pay less.
For a homeowner whose property has an assessed value of just under $335,000, property tax payments to the school district will now increase by just under $170, from $845 to about $1,015. But that same homeowner’s overall property tax bill this year will actually drop, from just over $2,009 in 2017, to just under $1,940.
However, that ratio won’t stay the same for long: The reassessment process plays out on a five-year schedule, and each year during that period, the assessor’s office will reassess a different group of parcels.
“Your time comes around every five years, and if your property is worth more, you’re going to pay more in taxes,” Kauffman said.
SCHOOL OFFICIALS SAY MORE FUNDS NEEDED FOR TEACHERS
Education board member Jim Webster said the board-approved increase is needed to boost teachers’ salaries.
“The board really did go through a lot of discussion to get to this point, and these rates, with vision, and looking toward the future,” he said during the board’s Aug. 7 meeting.
The district is catching up to where it should be, Webster said, adding that past education boards didn’t manage tax rates, or give “any thought” to increasing those rates.
“For years and years and years in this school district … the tax rate always dropped — it just floated down — and when you do that for many, many years, you fall behind,” he said. “That is why some years ago, we were at the very bottom of the pay scale for teachers in this school district … in this state.”
Education board president Melissa Byrd agreed that the issue of staff salaries is a priority for the board.
“We’re competing with McDonald’s, (which) pays $13 an hour, and our para-pro (educational assistant) … now, with this increase, they’ll be making $12.50 (per hour),” Byrd said. “They’re still making less … We’re trying to keep up with our community also, and by freezing the tax rate, we have the ability to bring in that income to keep our salaries where we can compete with a fast-food restaurant.”
But Pfnister — the mother of two children who graduated from the district’s schools — said it seems to her as though the education board is “just being greedy, greedy, greedy, greedy.”
District officials can’t keep taking taxpayers for granted, she said.
“None of us get 20-percent raises, yet our school district thinks it needs a 20-percent raise?” she said.
Pfnister asked board members whether they’re considering significant cuts elsewhere to help offset the 20-percent increase, and she questioned where the extra money would go.
“In our own personal lives, if we want to spend 20 percent or get more, we’ve got to cut something,” she said. “What is being cut?”
There’s more than just teacher pay involved in the rate hike, Pfnister said, running through a district “wish list” of school construction projects.
“At one point does the taxpayer get to say, ‘Whoa,’” she said. “Some people are living in homes that are many, many, many years old. They’re barely keeping it alive, but yet the school district’s going to get all these nice, new things?”
Johnston said that when board members took their levy proposal to voters in 2016, they argued in part that they would try to let increased valuations pay for teachers’ raises. At the time, he said, they indicated that they would not go through the “Truth in Taxation” process to increase property taxes for a time.
“(They said), in fact, it may not be that .0002 percent raise every year because we would get an increased valuation; that was part of the ongoing argument to vote for that voted levy,” Johnston said. “And … not only we’re not doing it, but it’s not even in the radar for the future.”
Johnston, who previously served on a district study committee that looked at the pros and cons of remodeling or rebuilding Grand County Middle School, said he’s in favor of more money for teachers. But he added that “great buildings” should not be an important consideration for district officials.
“Having a decent building is, but having a gorgeous beautiful building is not,” he said.
Under former GCSD Superintendent Scott Crane, Johnston said the district planned seven years ago to build a new middle school. Since then, he claimed, district officials “stopped” maintenance work at the current facility.
“When I was on that (study committee) seven years ago, it was critical — that’s what they said in those meetings,” he said. “It was critical: Our kids were drinking rusty water; something had to be done … Well, my kids have gone through that middle school and drank rusty water for seven years, and my point is that the building should have been kept up. It shouldn’t be costing $12 million now or whatever…”
“IT IS A PROPERTY TAX INCREASE, ABSOLUTELY”
Official state and county notices — including a “Notice of Property Valuation & Tax Change” from the Grand County Clerk’s Office — refer to the district’s revisions as a tax increase. But as in years past, school district officials continue to question that formal wording.
“I can’t even begin to explain why that tax notice looks the way it does,” Grand County School District Superintendent JT Stroder said.
Webster called the 20.07-percent figure “such an inflammatory number.” In his case, he said, his property tax bill will actually go down in 2019 — perhaps because separate county government entities that are not affiliated with the school district did not seek any changes in their own rates.
“In reality … I’m actually paying $52 less on my property taxes next year than I did this year … because everybody else didn’t do anything,” he said.
Stroder said he can say that board members were “very adamant” in their discussions that the only increase taxpayers will see this year is an increase in the district’s voter-approved local levy from 2016.
Kauffman said the county clerk’s notice offers taxpayers a comparison of what they would have paid if the education board hadn’t acted, versus what they are paying with the increase.
“It is a property tax increase, absolutely,” he told the Moab Sun News. “In the big picture, there are going to be more property taxes collected because of what the school district is doing.”
“Their tax rate isn’t higher than it was last year, but it’s higher than it would have been if they’d let the formula do the work,” Kauffman added.
DISTRICT HAS NO CONTROL OVER ASSESSED VALUES
Grand County School District Business Administrator Robert Farnsworth noted that the education board has no control over the assessment process. It’s also left out of the equalization process in Utah, which determines the valuation and taxation of properties.
In the last couple of years, he said, state lawmakers have enacted equalization bills that distribute revenue to Utah’s counties using a formula that doesn’t take Grand County’s situation into account.
“We don’t qualify for that money, but we get to put into that pool … because they look at our assessed value; they take our number of students and divide it by our assessed valuation and call us a rich county,” Farnsworth said. “It doesn’t address poverty.”
In comparison, he said, Utah County’s schools and their tens of thousands of students get “loads” of that money, based on the state’s formula.
“(State lawmakers) looked only at the assessed valuation per student, so when we only have maybe at most 1,500 students, and we take that big assessed valuation, it turns out we have a couple hundred thousand dollars per student, and so the legislature views that as, we’re a rich county,” Farnsworth said. “And then they withhold state funds, supplant it with the state basic (school) levy and say all things are equal.”
In response, he said, some school districts in Utah are pushing the state legislature to examine the issues of poverty and net income.
“It’s slowly catching traction, but it’s going to take a few more years,” Farnsworth said.
Webster said the district struggles with a “double whammy” of high assessed values in Grand County, along with residents who don’t make much money.
“This is our effort to try to bring things into a little bit more balance and make it better for the students and the school district,” he said.
Likewise, he said the equalization process in Utah hurts the Grand County School District and others like it in the state.
“One of the things that we have been pushing and trying to get some traction with the legislature is this consideration of poverty in a community (and) in a school district, and how the community may be wealthy in terms of its assessed values, but that doesn’t translate to the money that comes to the school district itself, and certainly not to the students who are not many of them are not wealthy,” he said. “But other school districts, like the big ones up north with lots of students, they benefit from this way the equalization is done now, so it’s an uphill battle.”
Webster said that Grand County’s three representatives in the legislature understand the school district’s situation and are “kind of” in its corner.
“But there are many, many other legislators who like it the way it is, because their school districts benefit from it,” he said.
With one eye toward the future, Webster said he believes that the board is still following the right path — for now — in terms of its property tax rates.
“Next year, we’ll see where things fall with this community,” he said.
But treasurer says gains in value will cut overall bills
“… That’s the big story to me: Commercial (valuations) went way up, which is pushing down property taxes for everyone else.”