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‘Challenging budget year’ ahead for Summit County, sales tax may free up funds

The 0.5% emergency services tax would need to be approved by voters in November. It would not affect groceries, gasoline or prescriptions.
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The 0.5% emergency services tax would need to be approved by voters in November. It would not affect groceries, gasoline or prescriptions.

Summit County’s projected 2025 budgetary shortfall has grown from $10 million to $15 million, staff say.

Summit County councilmembers prefer to ask voters to approve a new 0.5% sales tax this November to bridge the projected $15 million gap.

Such a tax would need a simple majority of votes Nov. 5.

The alternatives are substantial cuts to county programs or an 81.5% property tax increase to fill up the general fund, the largest chunk of the county budget.

That size of increase isn’t a real option, said Councilmember Chris Robinson.

“Most property taxpayers have seen from other things—the school districts having the ability to maintain their certified levy without going through Truth in Taxation, for example,” Robinson said on Local News Hour, “we're paying a lot more in property tax than we did two or three years ago. And so there's some fatigue in that, and so when we hear about it, then we're sensitive to it.”

The last time Summit County increased property taxes for the general fund and the municipal services fund, the other large chunk of the budget, was 2017.

State lawmakers generally recommend increasing property taxes every five years to keep pace with inflation.

Summit County has the second lowest tax rate in the state of Utah but the third highest property values, according to Summit County Chief Financial Officer Matt Leavitt, so it pulls in more with less.

The advantage council and staff see in the sales tax is that visitors and tourists pick up the tab too, not just locals. Leavitt said half of sales tax revenue comes from visitors to Summit County, and this particular sales tax would not apply to groceries, fuel or prescriptions.

The sales tax is being called an “emergency services tax” because it can fund search and rescue, emergency medical services, waste disposal, police, fire protection and avalanche forecasting.

Those costs, especially EMS, are contributing to the coming shortfall. County Manager Shayne Scott said $15 million is staff’s best estimate right now.

“We really don't know how impactful the budget is this year, yet,” he said June 26. “But we have some idea that's gonna be a challenging budget year.”

Leavitt estimates the 0.5% sales tax, or 50 cents per hundred dollars spent, would cover the $15 million.

County officials formerly called it the “rural hospital tax” because counties needed a rural hospital to levy it under the state law that opened up the tax option to Summit County.

Sixty-two percent of Wasatch County voters approved the tax last year to fund Wasatch EMS.

The rise in EMS costs is tied to a 2021 law which mandated that all Utah counties fund a basic level of EMS service. Previously Summit County delegated that responsibility to local fire departments, and the new mandate now costs about $5 million annually.

The mandate didn’t hit every county’s budget equally though.

Garfield County Commission Chair Leland Pollock told KPCW his county, home to such attractions as Bryce Canyon and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, has directly funded EMS for more than a decade. Still, it’s one of the most expensive things Garfield County pays for.

If the Summit County Council wants to put the sales tax on the ballot, it will need to decide before Sept. 1, and it will hold a public hearing at least 45 days before the Nov. 5 election.

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