OPINION — I attended the Dec. 5 Washington County Water Conservancy District Board of Trustees public hearing and meeting relating to raising the property tax rate. I was encouraged by the strong public turnout and the unanimous opposition of the public speakers to the proposed rate hike.
Many people said that property taxes unfairly subsidize those who waste water. Such taxes should be eliminated and replaced by tiered water pricing that would use free market incentives to encourage water conservation. This would be equitable because those who conserve would pay less, versus those who use more would pay more. People who have trouble making ends meet and those retirees on limited monthly incomes would not be subject to ever higher property taxes to pay for someone else’s water.
In my comments, I expressed shock at the district’s audacious request to increase property taxes while sitting on a massive reported budget surplus. This surplus is enough for the district to operate for 4,200 days with the existing cash on hand. A surplus about 12 times larger than the average for other water districts. A surplus that could keep the district running until 2030 without collecting an additional cent in revenue.
It seems obvious that this hoarding is primarily in preparation for construction of the likely exorbitantly-costly proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. Many speakers at the hearing questioned the pipeline as too expensive and risky, and urged the board members to pursue cheaper and more reliable alternatives.
After more than a decade, the pipeline is still not even halfway through the extensive environmental review process, and the public has still not had an opportunity to evaluate the pipeline in comparison to other alternatives. This opportunity should occur if and when the pipeline’s draft environmental impact statement is released.
I also expressed shock at the reported district salaries. For example, I understand that Utah’s governor makes about $190,000 per year; Utah’s attorney general about $187,000; and the district’s Ron Thompson about $239,000. I respect that Mr. Thompson has an important and complex job, but is his work really worth almost $50,000 more each year than Utah’s governor?
After the last speaker, the board chairman announced that the public hearing was over, and most people left. There was a long break and then the board considered adoption of the proposed property tax hike. As board members, St. George Mayor Jon Pike said that a majority of his constituents want growth and the water to support that growth, and Ivins Mayor Chris Hart said that growth was inevitable.
They said they support conservation but there was no discussion of phasing out property taxes nor initiating a tiered water pricing system. Pike then moved, and Hart seconded, to approve the requested property tax hike. That motion unanimously passed and the tax hike was approved.
I believe that the board members decided what they were going to do before the public hearing, and despite unanimous opposition from the public and a huge budget surplus they proceeded in lockstep to adopt the tax hike. In doing so, the board members demonstrated profound bias and an arrogant disregard for the public’s serious concerns.
The board members may feel that they won’t be held accountable and that their constituents are gullible and trusting. In future local elections, the voters will ultimately decide if that is true. I, for one, hope that won’t be true because we desperately need more diverse, responsive and open-minded local officials.
Submitted by RICHARD SPOTTS, St. George, Utah.
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