The will to protest higher taxes is alive and well in Sevier County.
"The taxpayers have got our attention," said Sevier County Commission Chairman T. Merlin Ashman following a hearing Friday during which taxpayers protested the commission's proposal to double county taxes.A record 250 people crowded into the courthouse auditorium for a rally and remained to make their desires known during a public hearing that followed. There was standing-room-only in the auditorium.
"For my part, I will take a hard and open-minded look at the situation and will make a decision based on the revenue we have rather than the projected revenue," Ashman said following the rally and hearing.
He said the tax and budget issue will be addressed by commissioners Friday and a decision reached and announced by 4 p.m. the following day.
Commissioner Jay Gardner predicted that attendance at the rally and public comment at the hearing will be reflected in the commission's final decision. "There is no doubt about that."
The rally was organized by Richfield businessman Paul Turner in connection with a group called WAIT (We're Against Increased Taxes). It was initially organized a few months ago to fight a sales tax increase and a franchise fee adopted by the Richfield City Council. The group mobilized again when it was learned that the County Commission planned to double county taxes.
Turner said the Richfield tax issues came about as a result of the Utah Taxpayers Association's challenge to a state code that doesn't permit people to vote on budget and tax issues. He predicted that Friday's protest will further the challenge. A bill will be presented to legislators during the upcoming session.
Emotions ran high as citizens entered the courthouse for the rally. But an appeal by Howard Stephenson, assistant director of the taxpayers association from Salt Lake City, set the stage for a fairly cordial public hearing. Still, some residents offered hostile remarks.
Commissioners defended the proposed tax increase, saying there had not been an increase in county taxes since Ashman became a commissioner nine years ago, while many other counties have raised taxes nearly every year. Also, commissioners said surpluses that have been used to offset expenses in the past are depleted.
County Attorney Don Brown's annual salary of $62,500 - the highest for that position in Utah - came under fire. Brown defended his salary, saying he is a full-time county attorney while other rural county attorneys are only part time and carry on their own law practices."I'll put my salary against any other attorney outside the Wasatch Front, and my income will be lower. If you can find someone else who will do the work for less, elect them."
Some who spoke expressed concern that continuing tax increases make it difficult for merchants to compete, for farmers to make a living, and for the elderly to live on fixed incomes.
Commissioners were challenged to plan ahead, make prudent business decisions and require their department heads to operate as though the departments were there own businesses.
The commission was also taken to task for not properly publicizing the first budget hearing, but Stephenson defended commissioners in explaining that a newly appointed auditor was not familiar with regulations. "It was an innocent mistake, and when we informed the commissioners of it, they were cooperative to correct it and called another hearing with proper notification," Stephenson said.