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Wasatch Fire District seeks new sales tax

An ambulance at the Wasatch Fire District's Jordanelle Station.
Wasatch Fire District
An ambulance at the Wasatch Fire District's Jordanelle Station.

As Wasatch County grows, the Wasatch Fire District is wrestling with how to meet the increasing need for emergency services. A recent change to state law may provide a solution. 

Previously, the smallest counties in Utah were allowed to tack on as much as 1% to the sales tax to fund EMS services. But a bill passed this year will allow counties as large as Wasatch County to do so as well.

For Wasatch Fire District Chief Eric Hales, the change couldn’t come soon enough. He told KPCW the district is playing "catch up" when it comes to meeting the emergency services needs of the county.

"We need to build at least three more stations in the next 10 years," he said. "And we need to staff each of those stations with three to five people, 24 hours a day. It takes about a million dollars a year to actually pay for that station."

The bulk of Wasatch Fire’s budget currently comes from property taxes. Hales said that’s worked well in the past as a funding mechanism. But as tourism increases in the Wasatch Back, it’s become increasingly unfair to those who own homes here.

Between 20 to 30% of people served by the county's EMS services are visitors to Wasatch County, he said. "If we can find a method to actually capture some of those costs, whether it's a transient room tax, whether it's through sales tax, we are able to shift that burden from our property tax payers to all those who come into our area.” 

Hales is seeking a half a percent increase in sales tax, which would take it from 6.45% to 6.95%. Gas and unprepared food would be exempt from the increase. That would generate an estimated $5.6 million in the first year.

6.95% is still lower than the surrounding counties’ tax rates. Summit and Utah counties’ currently both have a sales tax of 7.15%.

That doesn't mean Wasatch County homeowners would see much of a decrease in property taxes — at least not right away. Hales said Wasatch Fire will collect $6 million this year in property taxes, and will request the same amount next year. But as the county grows, that burden will be spread out over more taxpayers. And he envisions a day when property taxes account for a small portion of the budget.

"Over the next 10 years, I could see where 20% of our budget is coming from property tax, and the majority of it is coming from sales tax," he said.

Wasatch County voters will ultimately determine if that’s a fair trade. In order for the tax to be decided this year, Wasatch County Council will have to give their approval to put it on the ballot by the beginning of August.