WASHINGTON COUNTY – Residents of Washington County have been asked to consider a countywide tax in the upcoming election to help fund parks, arts and recreational opportunities for residents and tourists, stirring up questions about what a RAP tax is, and if there is a need.
Perhaps the real consideration for voters, as with any tax, is whether the need constitutes the call to tax; does the end justify the means? Washington County voters are not of one mind on the subject, as reflected in the pros and cons section of this report.
At an Aug. 5 Washington County Commission meeting, Proposition 3, the RAP tax initiative, was approved to be added to the Nov. 4 ballot as an opinion question. According to the minutes from that night’s meeting, the decision was made because “several municipalities within the county have expressed support” for the proposal.
The minutes reported that an estimated $2 million dollars in yearly revenue could be garnered to help fund recreational and cultural facilities and cultural organizations. Commissioner Alan Gardner said that roughly one-third of the money raised would come from tourists, rather than local taxpayers.
According to the RAP tax initiative, Resolution No. R-2014-1830, the tax imposed will be a sales tax of one-tenth of one percent – equivalent to one penny for every $10.
It went on to say that beneficiaries will include: publicly owned and operated athletic fields, parks, playgrounds, campgrounds, trails, swimming pools, gymnasiums and other recreational facilities; as well as, nonprofit organizations, institutions, county and municipal cultural councils who focus on the advancement and preservation of, “art, music, theater, dance, cultural arts, or natural history.”
If the initiative passes, cities and towns will have discretion in the distribution of funds allocated to the municipality according to an Interlocal Cooperation Agreement between the county and cities. The agreement was established as a way to ensure fairness to residents who dwell within the unincorporated areas of Washington County, and also the residents who live in each city – no matter how large or how small the city may be.
Of the total funds collected, the county will receive 15 percent off of the top to be allocated towards cultural organizations countywide. The remaining 85 percent will be divided as follows: 67 percent (of the 85 percent) will go to the various communities based on the population of each city according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau’s report; and 33 percent (of the 85 percent) will go to each community based on point-of-sale purchases made within that city’s boundaries.
The RAP tax initiative also states that Washington County’s portion of the remaining 85 percent of funding will be divided based on the population of residents who live in the unincorporated areas of the county and point-of-sale purchases made within those unincorporated areas as well. Including the unincorporated areas of Washington County, there would be a total of 16 entities with whom the funds will be divided countywide.
Each of the 16 entities will be required to establish its own advisory board to guide city or town councils, or they can choose to use the one established by the county. The boards will advise the city or town councils and county commission on where the revenue should be placed every year.
Although the advising board is required for funds going to nonprofit art and cultural organizations, the council and county commission may choose to take into account, or forego the advisement of the board.
So far, County Administrator Dean Cox said, Washington County has received a signed acceptance of the Interlocal Agreement from all but two municipalities within county boundaries – Springdale and Virgin Town. Virgin Town Clerk Monica Bowcutt said that, at this time, the city has declined to participate in the Interlocal Agreement. As this report is published, Springdale officials have not responded to St. George News’ inquiries.
Pros and cons
At a Sept. 26 Friends of RAP event, “The Inauguration of RAP,” spokesperson David L. Clark said that at first it was difficult to convince him to get behind the effort, because he spent so many years in the Utah state government working to reduce taxes.
Clark said the tipping point for him was when he realized that the very definition of Southern Utah culture rests on the back of its magnificent landscapes, recreational opportunities and cultural endeavors. By taking the time to invest in the infrastructure of the very thing that draws the onslaught of thousands of tourists to Washington County every year, Clark said, residents would be helping to build and ensure a thriving economy for many generations yet to come.
At that meeting, Clark said that the estimated $2 million projection was actually turning out to be a little low, and the county would raise closer to $2.5 million within the first year.
That $2.5 million a year estimate has some Washington County residents riled up about the idea. St. George resident and retired Bryce Canyon Chief Ranger Thomas Henry said that, if passed, by the time the RAP tax sunsets in 2025, the county will have collected $25 million from the public.
“That’s money out of the pockets of every taxpayer that rings up at a cash register in this county over the next 10 years,” he said.
When the RAP tax passed in Salt Lake County in 1996, there was a deep need to fund bankrupting cultural and recreational facilities that were part of the economic engine in the county, some Southern Utah taxpayers say they don’t see the same need in Washington County today.
At an Oct. 21 public hearing with the Washington County Commission, Washington County resident Bill Ennis said he was having a hard time finding the “gaping holes” in the existing parks systems infrastructure that would warrant a tax of this nature. As an artist and a small business owner, he said he has a hard time finding that need in the community, even if RAP tax funding could potentially be beneficial to him.
At that same meeting, Henry said that he believed there was already adequate funding available to foster the arts within the City of St. George. He said the $4 million recently allocated by the city to renovate a movie theater for the arts was proof-evident that when the city wants to fund a project, they will find the means to do so without having to raise taxes.
While funding opportunities may be available for some projects in St. George – the economic hub of the county – Cox said that the county itself, and neighboring communities, simply do not have access to readily available funds for cultural, and recreational endeavors.
In fact, he said, with exception to the $500 annual grant awarded to the Washington County Arts Council, the unincorporated areas of Washington County have never had funding in their budget to nurture their public spaces.
Cox said that the county would not receive very much money from the RAP tax, because there are not a lot of people living in the unincorporated parts of the county, and there are even fewer businesses where a point-of-sale percentage can accrue funding.
“So the county itself isn’t going to get very much out of that,” he said. “But we have Gunlock, and Brookside, and Central and Veyo, so if there were a little money it would allow us to try to make them into some type of scenic parks, or something … there’s certainly a need out there.”
Washington County resident Larry Meyers of Winchester Hills said in the Proposition 3 Voter Information pamphlet that the role of government is not to provide their community with the things it wants, but to protect the rights of the people who reside there.
“While parks, sport facilities and artistic productions are all worthy causes, they can be provided through the private sector and through charitable enterprises,” he said.
Cox said that St. George fueled the steam in the engine that launched the prospect of a RAP tax in Washington County, and since it had such a great deal of support, county commissioners thought it would be wise to offer the option to the entire Washington County community.
He said that since St. George is where the majority of Washington County residents do their shopping, residents should have the opportunity to reap the benefit of a tax they would be helping to fund.
“St. George gave up a significant amount of money if this passes at the county level,” he said. “Because if St. George City kept it with St. George City alone, all of the distribution of the funds from RAP tax would stay inside the city.”
The opinion question for Proposition 3, the RAP tax initiative, is on the ballot for Nov. 4.
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