County entities are considering tax increases of up to 22.9 percent
Despite the fact that San Juan County is already the highest-taxed county in the state by percentage, a property tax increase of 22.9 percent is being considered by three separate entities associated with San Juan County.
A notice to residents of the potential tax change was approved at the October 15 meeting of the county commission.
The increases will be considered for the county general fund, for the public health department, and for the libraries.
If approved, the tax increases would be due with property taxes in November, 2020.
With the notice of intent given, a public process will begin that requires notification and Truth in Taxation hearings. “This will allow citizens to go through the public process,” said County Clerk John David Nielson.
“A total increase of $79.31 per household, and $360 per business is a pretty heavy lift for both our residential and business communities,” said Commissioner Bruce Adams. “I can only imagine what the public hearing will be like.”
“The commission will consider it because the need has been identified by the department heads,” said Adams. “The Commission will consider it with the public.”
“Ouch,” said Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy when it was announced that the proposed changes represent a 22.9 percent increase.
The notification was approved by a 2-0 vote. Commissioner Willie Grayeyes was not in attendance at the meeting.
Nielson stated that the cash balance in the county general fund has dropped from nearly $7 million in 2015 to less than $1 million on September 30, 2019.
The proposed increase would raise the tax rate for the general fund by 14.7 percent and would generate $288,863 in additional taxes.
If approved, the taxes on a $200,000 home would increase by nearly $40 and taxes on a $500,000 business would increase by $181.
Nielson explained that the general fund increase would help the county cover the costs of litigation. In addition, the increase would be used to hire personnel and shore up other funds, including expenditures for EMS.
The San Juan Public Health Department has operated a number of programs since it was created several years ago.Previously, the services were offered through the Southeastern Utah District Health Department in Price. The department operates at its headquarter facility in Blanding.
The Public Health Department is one of three public health care entities in the county. Tax increases are not proposed for the San Juan Health Service District and San Juan Counseling.
The proposed increase would raise the tax rate for the public health department by 110.6 percent and would generate an additional $148,000 for the department. At the current time, property taxes generate $135,000 a year for the district.
The property tax impact for the owner of a $200,000 home is $20.68, and $94 for the owners of a $500,000 business.
The public health department states that their fund balance is exhausted. The district relies on transfers from the general fund to cover shortfalls.
While approximately 70 percent of the cost of department programs is covered by state and federal funds, the Public Health Department has additional staffing needs that are not covered by grants and fees.
The proposed increase would raise the tax rate for the library fund by 34 percent and raise an additional $135,000 for the libraries.
Property taxes currently generate almost $400,000 per year. The property tax increase would be $19 for a $200,000 home and $85 for a $500,000 business.
Officials state that the increase is necessary since expenses currently exceed revenues by up to $100,000 a year, with the overage covered by the General Fund.
New County Administrator Mack McDonald said the county will look at opportunities within the existing budget, but added that it appears that the county is “already running lean.”
“The challenge is that multiple staff are wearing multiple hats,” explained McDonald. “It is hard to be efficient when you have several jobs to complete.”
McDonald said that expenditures in a number of departments are already at or above the budgeted amount, including for administration, elections, EMS, inter-agency recreation, county fair and airports.
McDonald added that the library is overspending its budget by 25 percent.
In other business at the October 15 Commission meeting, the Lisbon Valley Copper Mining Company asked the Commission to approve a plan that would help the company catch up on past due property taxes.
George Shaw, chairman of the mining company, explained that the company owes $1.4 million in property tax, including $248,000 in fees and interest.
Shaw proposed that they would make the full 2018 payment of $282,000 in December.
For the next 36 months, Lisbon Valley would pay down the remaining $884,000 past due balance in payments of approximately $25,000 a month.
Shaw added that the company would stay current on the current year taxes and moving forward.
He asked that the county forgive the $248,000 in fees and interest.
Shaw said, “This may allow us time to ride out the trade dispute and be an ongoing concern.”
Shaw said that the copper market has been in a downturn since 2015, with prices at times below $2 an ounce. Shaw said that $3 an ounce is needed for the company to secure the profits that they seek.
In addition, Shaw said that trade disputes have created further uncertainty in the copper industry, in part because China consumes half of world’s metals.
Shaw said Lisbon Valley Mining has continued to persevere, has complied with permit requirements, and hopes to develop an additional five or six years to the life of the mine.
Mining operations are on idle now, as milling crews work on existing stockpiles.
Shaw said that the company has 65 employees at the current time and plans on 100 employees going forward for the next 12 to 20 years.
The hope is to restart mining operation in early 2020.
Commissioners also approved a request to remove the value of a home in Blanding from the property tax rolls.
Previous property taxes were still owed on the home, which was purchased in September by Jared Kropf.
Kropf paid the past due taxes on the home, which was burned in a fire and will be raised. He said he did not want to pay taxes on the destroyed home moving forward.
Kyle Hosler, Business Administrator for the San Juan School District, discussed how education efforts are impacted by funding from the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).
“State Trust Lands play an important part in the education effort,” said Hosler. He reports that the San Juan School District has received $1.5 million over the past five years from the lease and sale of SITLA lands.
Commissioners discussed road issues, particularly as they relate to school bus routes on the Navajo Nation.
Hosler encouraged Commissioners to enter a relationship with the Navajo Nation to maintain and plow roads on the reservation.
Hosler said that several school bus routes “are not to a standard to guarantee snow removel.”
San Juan County is working with the Navajo Nation to develop a plan that could resume road work services on several key roads on the reservation.
An October 24 meeting is planned in Shiprock.
San Juan County is willing, has the equipment, and wants to do the road work, said Commissioner Bruce Adams, who added, “We just are told that they are not our roads and we don’t have a right to be there.”
Adams said, “These roads are the highest priority of the county and the residents.”
In addition to SITLA and road work, Hosler also discussed funding for a school district to recruit and retain master teachers in the southern schools.
The program has been funded in the past by House Bill 43, which has provided $240,000 each year. Hosler said that district hopes for support from the commission and from local chapters.
Director of Economic Development Natalie Randall discussed a recent Economic Development Summit that was held in Blanding in September.
Randall reports that 92 people attended the event, including elected officials, industry leaders, and state and federal economic development officials.
Issues discussed include economic development zones, increased work with the Navajo Nation, and rural economic development.
County Administrator Mack McDonald stated that Randall did a great job and presented her with a letter of commendation from the Commissioners.
Two other recent events in San Juan County included a tour of state legislators and an extended visit by Congressman John Curtis.
Commissioners approved a mapping project that will provide 360-degree video of two trails in San Juan County.
The trails to be mapped are the Hook and Ladder Trail and the Bridger Jack Mesa Trail.
The video work will be paid through a $3,500 per trail grant from the Utah Department of Natural Resources. A third trail may be mapped
Commissioners approved revisions that are proposed for the Manti La Sal National Forest Plan.
Commissioner Willie Grayeyes had expressed concerns about the revisions, but he was not in attendance at the Commission meeting.
The revisions were approved with the assurance that Grayeyes would be able to submit his concerns at a future time.
Nick Sandberg said that a backcountry pilots association wants to improve and be able to use the Dark Canyon Airstrip that runs alongside a county road on an isolated portion of the forest.
Sandberg said the backcountry group would be responsible for the maintenance
Sandberg reported that the permits for the well south of Wilson Arch Community was modified to require access from the south to avoid the community.
The permit was amended to mitigate visual, noise, and night-time lighting impacts.
Seven Spanish Valley residents provided comment during the public comment portion of the meeting.
The comments included concerns about the proposed Love’s Truck Stop, the possible construction of housing for 14,000 people in Spanish Valley, the moratorium on commercial development, housing shortages for teachers in the Moab area, and more.
The six-month moratorium on commercial development along Highway 191 in Spanish Valley is set to expire in mid-November.
Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy said he hopes to meet with Spanish Valley residents before the moratorium expires and said, “I hope you can work it out.”
Maryboy added, “We have no control over SITLA. I am not sure how this is going to unfold.”
Commissioners approved county participation in the Utah Federal Lands Access Program, which will provide funding for a $6 million reconstruction project on the La Sal Loop Road.
The county is to provide a 6.77 percent match for the project. This portion of the project is from Pack Creek to the Old Airport in Spanish Valley.
Commissioners also approved the purchase of a $3,406 poly-sander unit for the road department.
A two-year contract for $10,800 was approved for aviation support and maintenance at Cal Black Airport.
San Juan County will be the Fiscal Agent Services for the Oljato Chapter Drought Assistance Project.
The project will develop water wells using funding through the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. As an administrative fee for being the fiscal agent, $34,550 will go to the county.
Commissioners approved a formal notification of commission meetings.
Since June, a number of Commission meetings have been held in areas across the county, including Spanish Valley, Blanding, Montezuma Creek, Bluff and Monument Valley.
However, formal legal notice of the meeting changes had not been made.
In the future, Commission meetings are planned for November 19 in Navajo Mountain and November 5 and December 3 in Monticello.
The meetings include a work session from 9 to 11 a.m. and the formal Commission meeting beginning at 121 a.m.
The annual budget hearing will be December 4 at 6 p.m.