‘Money we take from the taxpayers is sacred’; County Commission considers proposed 2020 budget

ST. GEORGE — The Washington County Commission adopted a preliminary $105 million budget Tuesday for 2020 that carries little change from the previous year beyond gradual increases brought on by the county’s continuing growth and the implementation of a transportation infrastructure sales tax.

Washington County Clerk/Auditor Kim Hafen reviews the proposed 2020 budget with the Washington County Commission, St. George, Utah, Nov. 19, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“There’s not a big difference from last year,” Washington County Clerk/Auditor Kim Hafen said, noting that the budget is around 2-3% higher than the 2019 budget.

The proposed budget’s general fund is projected to be $34.5 million, up just over $500,000 from 2019.

Property tax revenues are projected to bring in an increase of $652,000 for a total of nearly $10.2 million. Sales and use tax is projected to bring in an additional $400,000 over 2019, bringing that up to $9.2 million for 2020.

Neither property nor sales taxes were subject to rate increases, Hafen said. They’ve simply increased with the population of the county, which translates to more development and sales overall.

Hafen, who has been with the county for 11 years, said there hasn’t been a property tax increase by the county during his tenure.

A breakdown of Washington County’s proposed 2020 budget’s general fund showed during a presentation given to the County Commission, St. George, Utah, Nov. 19, 2019 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Washington County has one of the lowest general fund rates of Utah’s 29 counties, he said. It is a position that he and the County Commission said they were pleased with, as it showed the commission was frugal in its use of taxpayer funds.

“I think that’s a feather in the cap of the commission,” Hafen said. “They pay attention to the fact that money we take from the taxpayers is sacred money … and we don’t take more than we need.”

However, there was an increase in the area of sales and use tax with the county’s adoption of the 0.25% sales tax for transportation infrastructure and transit earlier this year. That tax took effect at the start of October.

According the proposed budget, revenue generated by the 0.25% sales tax will help increase funds for the county’s B and C roads. This will add to an estimated $1.2 million over 2019’s numbers, bringing the project fund to $3.9 million for the coming year.

The number of county staff is anticipated to remain consistent over the next year with the exception of a handful of new court support service personnel and an additional public defense attorney to help alleviate the high caseload the county’s contracted public defenders are experiencing. These positions are being funded through grants received by the county, Hafen said.

Rescue of a sick hiker on Red Mountain, Sept. 28, 2019, St. George, Utah | Photo courtesy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Facebook page, St. George News

The 2020 budget will also see a shift in expenses for public safety from the general fund to the municipal services fund.

Public safety, which is primarily the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, makes up the largest expense in the general budget at $14.6 million. That would have been up an additional $5 million if not for the county shifting that amount to municipal services to cover the cost of patrols.

The general fund primarily covers county administrative costs and services, with just under half of that going to public safety. Additional funds deal with municipal services, B and C roads, the county library system, convention and tourism, recreation, the county’s Council on Aging and debt service.

The County Attorney’s Office is the second-highest funded item at $3.25 million for next year, followed by the county’s information technology services at $1.4 million.

Hafen is recommending a 4% raise for county employees. The raise does not apply to Washington County Sheriff’s Office employees who are on a different pay schedule.

Touching on the county’s convention and tourism fund, Hafen that a noted the Legislature recently made changes in how transient room taxes can be used for certain communities at the head of a national park, such as Springdale.

Downtown Springdale, Utah, June 11, 2015 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

The tax has very strict rules attached to how the revenue it generates can be used, and the recent changes will allow the county to devote 4% of the transient room tax – an estimated $344,000 – toward emergency services for the area.

The added revenue will be applied to the Hurricane Valley Fire District, which covers Springdale and the communities along state Route 9, among others on the western side of the county.

The public can review the proposed 2020 budget at the County Clerk’s Office located in the Washington County Administrative Building at 197 E. Tabernacle St. in St. George.

An online copy will be made available on the Washington County website in the near future, Hafen said.

The County Commission will vote on adopting the proposed budget in December.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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