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Wasatch County Council approves new sales tax aimed at funding public transit next year

Ben Lasseter
Wasatch County Manager Dustin Grabau gives a presentation on Wasatch County's options for public transit to council members, including (L-R) Kendall Crittenden, Marilyn Crittenden and Jeff Wade.

The Wasatch County Council approved a new sales tax Wednesday night that could fund public transit.

The council voted 6-1 to levy a countywide 0.25% sales tax, beginning in 2023, at a special session and public hearing Wednesday.

That means for every $4 people spend on taxable items throughout the county, they’ll pay an extra penny. Groceries and gas are excluded from the tax.

It’s estimated to generate about $2.5 million annually, with visitors contributing nearly half of that. If the revenue isn’t used for public transportation, the county can spend it on public roads.

Councilmember Steve Farrell said he felt hesitant to put any financial burden on taxpayers without putting it to a public vote, but the pros of public transit outweighed the cons of the tax.

“If this can improve our transportation plan, cut down on maybe some of the traffic we're seeing and improve the quality of life for some people, for the air quality, it'd be a benefit,” he said.

Others added that securing some funding for transit will help the county qualify for additional grants.

Councilmember Marilyn Crittenden voted against it. She said she wasn’t sure the benefit of having public transportation justified the extra cost to shoppers.

“I'm just not convinced that the county is ready for that,” Crittenden said. “I know a quarter of a penny doesn't seem like much, but I don't know, I have some real mixed feelings about it. I've seen public transportation be lovely and wonderful, but I haven't seen much of it in the West.”

Crittenden also said she supported public transit in the Mayflower Resort project area, but that the state taxing and development authority in charge of that should provide the funding. That entity is the Military Installation Development Authority, known as MIDA.

No one spoke during the public hearing before the council made its decision.

The county has been working on expanding High Valley Transit into the Heber Valley and Jordanelle area with a bus between Heber City and Park City and on-demand microtransit shuttles.

Council members and County Manager Dustin Grabau said they may prefer to start by providing microtransit. They said offering free transportation within the Heber Valley floor and Jordanelle area could be an effective way to introduce public transit to residents.

The sales tax approved Wednesday could generate enough to pay for microtransit shuttles or an hourly bus service. If the county decides to offer more robust public transportation, it has four more sales tax options for public transit or roads funding, each of which would levy 0.25%.

The state Legislature created those options to give counties opportunities to generate revenue at the local level without raising property taxes.

Utah Sen. Ron Winterton said the state wants local governments to raise their own funding, especially for public transit.

Some of the sales taxes come with deadlines, which he said are to force local governments’ hands as the Legislature considers whether to levy statewide taxes in the future.

He told KPCW, “[The state] incentivized it and said, ‘Well, if you do it, then this is what will happen to the money. If you don't do it, we're still going to impose it, but we keep the money.’ So why not, you know? If they collect it anyway, wouldn’t you want to keep it local?”

Several council members agreed they should put any additional sales taxes to a public vote before levying them.

For a link to a presentation on data the county has about possible transit users and costs, visit the link below:

Ben Lasseter reports for KPCW in Wasatch County. Before moving to Heber City, Ben worked in Manti as a general assignment newspaper reporter and editor.
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