Budget cuts coming as St. George leaders balk at hiking property taxes

The mayor and council members will huddle over the coming week to identify $3.16 million they can cut from the city’s proposed $503 million budget for the 2023 fiscal year.

(Jim Urquhart | The Salt Lake Tribune) Residential developments in St. George in 2008.

St. George • With inflation near a 40-year high and a possible economic recession looming, members of the St. George City Council decided Thursday to reject a proposed property tax hike to bolster public safety.

Instead, the mayor and council members will huddle over the coming week to identify $3.16 million they can cut from the city’s proposed $503 million budget for the 2023 fiscal year, an amount equal to what the proposed tax hike would have generated. Once that is done, they will meet Aug. 25 to formally adopt the budget and use that $3.16 million in savings in the general fund to hire another 14 police officers and 12 firefighters.

For St. George resident June Robinson, an elderly widow who lives on a fixed income, the council’s action brought welcome relief.

“Asking residents and business owners to pay higher taxes when food and gas prices are going through the roof and so many of us are living on fixed incomes is just wrong,” she said. “So I’m pleased that the council decided to do the right thing, even if it took them a long time to get there.”

Robinson was part of an overflow crowd that packed the council chamber and spilled out into the hallway and lobby, where TVs were set up for people to watch the proceedings of the marathon public hearing. Most residents’ message to the mayor and council on the proposed property tax hike: Don’t do it.

“This is the country that has put a man on the moon, won two world wars and built the Hoover Dam,” resident Nathan Hunter said. “I think out of a $500 million budget, we can find money for the police officers and firefighters without raising taxes.”

If adopted, the proposed property tax hike would have cost the owner of an average $566,000 home about $5 a month, or $60 per year. The increase on a $566,000 business in St. George would cost about $8.75 a month, or $105 a year.

The proposal was part of a five-year plan to eventually fund the addition of 46 police officers and 22 civilians to the police department and 34 firefighters and two civilians to the fire department, an effort the city dubbed “Safe St. George.” It also would fund the construction of four fire stations, 158 police and fire vehicles and increase compensation for public safety workers.

The price tag for Safe St. George is just under $90 million. The plan calls for property tax increases over five years that would generate just over $23 million toward that total, with the balance coming from impact fees, grants, bond issuances and city reserves. To lessen the sticker shock, city officials wanted to raise the property taxes in two or three increments over the next five years.

City officials advocating for the tax hike argued it was sorely needed.

In 1987, the last time St. George increased property taxes, Ronald Reagan was president and the city’s population was about 28,000. Today, that population has skyrocketed to nearly 100,000. Alas, tax hike advocates argued at the meeting, public safety in the city is lagging far behind that growth.

“Our growth has stretched resources to the point where we’ve had to make some adjustments,” said St. George Police Chief Kyle Whitehead.

One of those adjustments is the St. George police have become more reactive than proactive. Whitehead said his department lacks the number of officers required to effectively police motorcycle gangs, illegal drug use and other problems worsened by the city’s growth. He said officer response times have also been negatively impacted.

Further exacerbating matters, the starting pay for St. George police officers is $22 an hour, about $10 less than what the Utah Highway Patrol and many other cities pay their officers. As a result, the department is struggling to attract new officers and retain the ones it already has.

“We’re seeing some signs of burnout,” Whitehead said.

St. George Mayor Michele Randall echoed the chief’s concerns, saying an increase was long overdue after 35 years without hiking property taxes.

“We’ve had many councils before us that have kicked this can [down the road] for a very long time, and we can continue to kick that can,” she said. “But in two or three years, your property taxes would be a whole lot more by continuing to kick the can.”

For her part, Councilwoman Michelle Tanner said she supported paying for additional officers and raising their pay, but opposed hiking taxes to do it. She noted that St. George’s budget is higher than Provo’s and many other cities of similar or larger size.

“If we’re putting out public messaging that we can’t properly fund the most important, number one aspect of our government unless we tax you, to me that just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Yet we can have a 34 % increase [in the budget] for our Leisure Services … We found funding for $1.3 million for the St. George Golf Course clubhouse. We can pay $38,000 for the council to attend out-of-town conferences and $85,000 to the League of Cities and Towns for lobbying. I’m willing to forgo that and put that [money] toward public safety.”

Rather than increase the property tax rate, the council voted to accept the certified rate which it received from the county, which is lower than last year’s rate. Utah’s Truth-in-Taxation law requires property tax rates to automatically adjust when property values change so that the tax a government entity collects remains the same. Since the assessed value of homes and businesses in St. George has increased over the past year, the rate is lower so that the amount the city collects remains revenue neutral, according to City Manager Adam Lenhard.

One problem with the city accepting the lower rate instead of passing a higher rate is that St. George’s tentative budget for the next fiscal year still contains the $3.16 million the property tax increase would have generated. To balance the budget as required by law, city leaders need to cut that amount. The meeting next Thursday is aimed at doing precisely that and formally adopting the budget.

If passed, the revised budget would allow the city to only implement the first year of Safe St. George with respect to hiring additional police officers and firefighters. The city would use funding from impact fees and other sources to construct additional fire stations and purchase more police and fire vehicles and equipment.