HURRICANE – Washington County Commissioners have started attending city council meetings of the municipalities within the county to present and discuss a proposed 3 percent tax on gasoline designed to provide funds for maintaining local roads. They attended the Hurricane City Council meeting Thursday night to discuss the issue after gaining support for the proposal from the LaVerkin City Council, their first stop, the night before. The commissioners did not gain the City Council’s wholehearted support.
One of the challenges of the proposal cited by Commissioner Dennis Drake, who served as spokesman for the commissioners, is that there are several different versions with nothing set in stone. For example, one version suggests half of the new funds from the tax would go to the state and the other half earmarked for local use with another iteration hoping for all the revenue raised to stay local.
The last state gas tax passed in 1997 but since then, Drake said, asphalt prices have risen 600 percent making it difficult to maintain roads at the same level.
City Councilman and Mayor-elect John Bramall said the 1997 tax promised more allocations to rural counties but his experience driving through rural counties, such as Emery and Duchesne, demonstrate the 1997 tax has not delivered on its promises.
Drake said that is what he would like to avoid this time around – the proposal being passed without taking into account its impact on rural counties and without hearing such counties’ concerns.
Drake and his fellow commissioners kept bringing up the fact that tourists would ease the burden of the tax a little, which makes the proposal an easier pill to swallow than another rise in property tax.
Mayor Tom Hirschi agreed with the commissioners on the property tax, but said citizens are tired of new taxes springing up in economically tenuous times.
The only thing Councilman Mike Jensen said he likes about the proposed tax is tourists will help with it. One of the underlying problems Jensen mentioned is that road repairs cost too much, especially with government red tape. For example, Jensen said a $1 million road improvement project could turn into a $1.7 million project after required extras like environmental assessments are tacked on.
Drake admitted he does not like the tax either, but that there are no other revenue streams from which to draw and it is time to address the need to properly maintain the county’s roads.
Another concern with the tax proposal the city council voiced was that in its current versions, the tax would not apply to diesel or natural gas. Jensen said vehicles powered by these other fuels exact damage on the road as well and their drivers should not be exempt from the tax.
Councilwoman Pam Humphries said the gas tax might dissuade drivers from taking vacations and would lead to increased prices on other goods.
“We haven’t got a choice,” Councilman Kevin Tervort, who owns a gas station, said of the proposed tax. “We have to maintain what we have.”
“We are not saying ‘let’s get it done,’” Drake said. “We’re deciding if it’s something we want to support. If there is an alternative, let’s look at it.”
One alternative Hirschi suggested is cutting from the budget and using the money saved on roads.
“We need to live a lot tighter within our means,” Hirschi said. “I think there needs to be a lot of discussion.”
“If we’re going to have to do this,” Tervort said, “this is the most logical way.”
If the tax doesn’t happen soon locally, eventually the federal and state governments will step in and do it the way they would like, Tervort further said.
“Of all the proposals, this one gives us a shared economy,” Drake said, pointing to the fact that in all versions of the proposal a part of the revenue raised from the tax would remain local.
Even if Washington County municipalities approve the tax proposal in one of its current versions, the Utah Association of Counties has said all 29 Utah counties must lend their support to the tax for it to become a reality, Myron Lee, manager of the Dixie Metropolitan Planning Organization, said. Analysts say there is a 50-50 chance of the tax being proposed in the next legislative session, mainly because many legislators are up for re-election so they might be resistant to passing such a tax, Lee said.
In contrast to the proposed gas tax hike proposal, the City Council decided to support, without discussion, a proposed 18-inch culinary water line from Sand Hollow Reservoir that Washington County Water Conservancy District General Manager Ron Thompson said would put water “where growth occurs.”
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