Alpine school board approves lower property tax rate than residents feared

At a packed board meeting, Utah County residents worried about a 19% increase. Alpine School District instead approved a 7.8% hike.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Residents gather for the Alpine School District's truth in taxation hearing on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023.

Frustrated residents packed Alpine School District’s boardroom Tuesday evening, worried they would see a 19% increase in their property tax rates.

“I’m a retired individual on a fixed income, and many people are like that,” one resident said. “Having this big of a tax increase is kind of difficult to take.”

Others suggested the district make funding cuts elsewhere to come up with the needed money.

“Many homes, many people are having to tighten their budget and figure out how to come up with better solutions,” another resident said. “I suggest that the school board do this. Tighten your belts. Figure out where you can come up with better solutions, just as all the rest of us are. Increasing a tax directly to the people isn’t the best way to do this.”

But after nearly four hours of emotional speeches from 44 individuals, their worries were set to ease — at least a bit. Alpine’s school board approved a rate that is actually 3.6% lower than last year’s.

It amounts to a 7.8% increase.

Under the new rate, many property owners might actually see a decrease in taxes, said Rob Smith, business administrator for Alpine.

“Many property holders, if their values stayed relatively the same last year versus this year ... they will pay less in property taxes,” Smith said.

However, if a property’s value significantly increased over the past year, taxes will, too, Smith said.

Why were residents concerned about a 19% increase?

Tuesday’s meeting, called a truth-in-taxation hearing, is a step required under Utah law if school districts — or any taxing entity — want to generate more revenue, which they can do by increasing local property taxes.

Generally, property tax rates in Utah are based on the amount of tax dollars collected the previous year. This means that as property values rise, taxing entities can only collect as much revenue as was generated the year before.

Tax rates are forced downward to keep revenue streams the same year to year. That adjusted rate is known as the “certified rate.”

If school districts want to change the certified rate, they must hold a hearing. The first step in that process is notifying the public.

Districts must calculate and disclose the “worst-case” scenario, meaning they must publish the “maximum rate” they could charge under state law, along with the certified rate.

In Alpine’s case, its certified rate for the coming year would have been .005118 on the taxable value of property. The maximum rate is .005818 this year.

And those two rates were what residents were seeing on their notices.

“What we’re recommending, which is different from your tax notice, is .005518 not .005818, which is what was in the tax notice,” Smith said. “That shows the 19% that many of you referenced tonight.”

Last year’s rate was .005724, Smith said.

“If I look at what was last year’s rate versus what we’re recommending the board consider, that rate is less than what it was last year,” Smith said. “It’s more than what the certified rate is. So, I’m not here to say that there is not increased taxes.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rob Smith explains a few points, during the Alpine School District Truth in Taxation Hearing, on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023.

What will the tax increase fund?

The new rate will generate an estimated $21.6 million in additional annual revenue, even though the rate is lower than last year.

This is because over the last two years, the value of Utah County houses have skyrocketed. In 2020, the median home value was roughly $390,000, according to Zillow. Now, it’s nearly $500,000 — a 28% increase.

The district intends to use approximately $4 million of the additional tax revenue to supplement programs and services that were previously funded by COVID-19 relief dollars.

Alpine spent roughly $60 million of pandemic funding on support services, the majority of which went to students with special needs. But now that the funding has run out, the district hopes to maintain its level of service.

“Our special ed funding is insufficient to provide the supports we need for many of our most at-risk students academically,” Smith said in a previous interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “So, part of this revenue is to provide additional paraprofessional supports in all of our special ed classrooms, self-contained schools [and] transition programs.”

The remaining dollars will fund the district’s school nursing contract with the Utah County Department of Health, a 2% base salary increase for teachers and new construction.

Residents accuse the board of ‘backlash’

Though the board did not approve a 19% tax increase, comments by the public highlighted the severe impact of inflation and mounting financial burdens.

“I have a concern because my taxes for the last seven years have gone up a bit,” said resident Kim College through tears. “I’m also retired. I also am on a medication that costs $6,000. I can’t do it any more.”

Many speakers echoed College’s sentiments. “We can’t afford this,” they pleaded with the board.

Some called taxes “evil,” while others criticized the salaries of the district’s highest-paid administrators, Superintendent Shane Farnsworth and Smith. Each made more than $310,000 in 2022, according to public records.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thomas Cook makes a statement during the Alpine School District Truth in Taxation Hearing, on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023.

“You need to tighten your belts,” said resident Thomas Cook. “You need to do a little soul searching when you come to this vote and realize that you got people out here and across this county that are tired of losing their homes. This is not about cheating kids out of funding. This is about fiscal responsibility on y’all’s part.”

Others said the district should “cut back” on diversity, equity and inclusion-focused programs and “stick with the basics” like reading, writing and arithmetic.

However, some expressed their support.

“I do support this tax increase,” said resident Emma Wilson. “I am willing to pay my share and to pay more so that my children and the future of this school district have a good education.”

Alpine is currently exploring new school boundaries and more school closures after a proposed $600 million bond failed to pass with voters in 2022. The funds would have gone toward building new schools and repairing old ones with significant seismic needs.

Board members have attributed recent school closures — and possible future consolidations — in part to the failure of that bond.

In July, the board voted to close two elementary schools — Valley View and Sharon elementaries — despite a lawsuit and scrutiny by Utah lawmakers over whether the district followed school closure laws. The lawsuit has since been dropped.

At Tuesday’s meeting, several residents said they felt the tax increase was a form of retaliation for voting down the bond.

One resident described it as “coming in the back door” to make up for the lost funds.

But Briawna Hugh, a teacher at Willowcreek Middle School in Lehi, said the revenue generated by the tax increase is needed because her class sizes are becoming unmanageably large.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Briawna Hugh makes a statement during the Alpine School District Truth in Taxation Hearing, on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023.

“We didn’t pass the bond,” Hugh said. “I know that goes to buildings, and it goes to capital needs. But when we are taking out money from other pots to address capital needs, we’re missing out on a lot of money.”

Board members respond

Board members countered the criticisms before their vote.

“The kids we have now are not living in the same world that I lived in when I was a school or you lived in when you were in school,” said board member Stacy Bateman. “So I appreciate the desire for reading, writing and arithmetic, but that is no longer what cuts it in our world.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Board member Stacy Bateman makes a statement during the Alpine School District Truth in Taxation Hearing, on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023.

Board member Ada Wilson said she sympathizes with those on fixed incomes during a time when inflation is so high, but the district is feeling the pains of it as well.

“I find it kind of hard to fathom because we have made efforts to tighten our belts,” Wilson said. “And this process of school closures is one that’s going to be happening not just in our school district but throughout the state as we face the changing demographics of our communities. And I find it hard to understand how you can ask us to keep small schools open and not raise your taxes because that’s what it takes.”

She said what she heard from residents on Tuesday is a symptom of decisions by Utah legislators to cut income tax and funnel public money for education into private schools through vouchers.

Wilson called on residents to help by speaking with their legislators and advocating for increased public education spending.

“They are not being responsive in the ways that count,” Wilson said. “And I just want you to know that what they’re doing is pushing boards like us to raise taxes on people like you.”