Grand County Council members Terry Morse and Curtis Wells. [Moab Sun News image]

Read their lips: no new taxes — this year, at least.

The Grand County Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday, Oct. 16, to rescind a previous motion to advertise a public “Truth in Taxation” hearing that could have cleared the way for a hike in property taxes; Evan Clapper and Terry Morse voted against the majority.

The defeated motion would have launched the public process to consider one of three previously discussed tax increases, which ranged from $565,912 to more than $1.5 million, with a middle option of just over $1 million.

Instead of considering a tax increase this year, Grand County Council member Jaylyn Hawks suggested that council members should tighten the county’s budget in every way they can, while utilizing Transient Room Tax (TRT) and Tourism, Recreation, Cultural and Convention Facilities Tax (TRCC) fund balances.  

In addition, she said, they should establish where it would make sense for other government entities to contribute to the costs of services in the county. Finally, she said, they should look at special service district budgets for efficiencies, while allowing for new growth in revenue and awaiting the completion of a capital projects needs analysis.

“If after we’ve performed all of that due diligence during this next year, if a tax increase is unavoidable, consider it for next year,” Hawks said.   

As a last resort, she said, the council should use the county’s general fund savings as little as possible moving forward to help cover salary increases, projected capital projects needs, a “realistic” stormwater management plan and funding for an additional information technology position.

“I don’t like spending rainy day funds for ongoing expenses,” Hawks said. “However, I also feel like we need to tie up a lot of loose ends.”

Grand County Council chair Mary McGann said she shares Hawks’ concern about the frugal use of savings from the county’s general fund.

“If we’re OK with that, then I’m definitely OK with waiting a year while we make sure we get all of our ducks in a row,” McGann said. “But I’m not OK if we’re not going to get our needs met. If we’re going to be wishy-washy on things, I want to be able to know it’s OK for us to look at our savings a bit.”

Grand County Council vice chair Curtis Wells said he believes the council can accomplish the goals of the county’s salary survey implementation process without a tax increase this year.

By this time next year, he said, the council will be able to review its currently ongoing needs assessment.

“We’ll have the opportunity to look at that report, and factor in those recommendations and findings into next year’s budget process,” Wells said.

Grand County Budget Officer Chris Baird estimated that any salary adjustments, plus increases in county employees’ health insurance, would cost the county roughly $881,000.

Looking at additional expenses, Baird said the council previously discussed the possibility of increasing its contribution to stormwater management funding, from $100,000 to $400,000. It also proposed $75,000 for the additional IT position, while possibly setting aside matching county funds that would allow Canyonlands Field Airport to apply for federal grant funding.

Wells said he values the input that Baird — a former county council member — brings to his current job as the county’s budget officer. (Baird is also running unopposed in the 2018 general election for the county clerk/ auditor’s seat.)

“It’s good to have Chris in this position, because he can bring a perspective of past councils and some of his experiences and frame of references for what’s not getting budgeted for, and what’s being neglected because it’s not attractive politically,” Wells said. “I appreciate that, but I’m looking at this as taking more than one bite of the apple to get this done, and the priority to me, speaking for myself this year, is to take care of the employees and roll our sleeves up going into the fiscal year 2020 planning process next year.”

If the county needs to adjust its property tax revenue next year, Wells said, he’s certainly willing to do that.

Morse said the council’s discussion of the issue is all “well and good,” but he said he’s afraid that one of three things could happen next year: The council could go through the Truth in Taxation process and decide not to raise taxes, and then have to pull more money out of the county’s general fund. When the county finally gets to point where a tax increase is necessary, he said, he’s concerned that it could end up being a very large one.

“I would rather do exactly like the school system has done,” Morse said. “The school system has raised taxes every year, and just by little increments, but I … think we’re going to at some point have to raise some more funds for this county, and I think it’s inevitable, and I think it’s easier on the taxpayer if the taxpayer can plan for incremental increases, rather than being hit with a large one all at once.”

Clapper said he also supports the idea of taking smaller, incremental steps to raise property taxes.

“And so I am in favor of keeping the process open and moving forward with advertising in order to have public hearings and get more feedback from citizens and what they expect in terms of services and the level of government that they’re interested in funding,” he said.

For Clapper himself, those funding priorities include the Canyonlands Care Center, as well as health and human services.

“That may not necessarily be our obligation, but something we have contributed to in the past, and I would not like to see programs like that be cut,” he said.

Wells said he disagrees that going to voters and asking them to support tax increases little by little is the best way to go about it.

“The thing I like about not doing this little by little is I feel like it gives us an easy way out, because I’ve noticed a big difference in the past almost two years … about being candid in these public meetings about the city needing to pay more on things,” he said.

He noted that council members sat down during a special service district funding distribution meeting and came up with almost half a million dollars by “getting tough” with others.

“This body needs that motivation, and it’s not to squeeze every dime out of services and lower them — nobody wants to lower the services, but it’s important, and I think that’s part of the business aspect that I enjoy, is that we need that motivation to streamline and to be as efficient as possible,” Wells said.

Council votes 5-2 against advertising public hearing on defeated plan

“If after we’ve performed all of that due diligence during this next year, if a tax increase is unavoidable, consider it for next year.”