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Counties may unload some costly services

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County governments are thinking about unloading expensive state programs they see as a drag on their strapped budgets.

Diminishing property tax revenues and less-than-promised state dollars make it difficult, if not impossible, for counties to provide a laundry list of things from mental health services to motor vehicle registration to court security. The state contracts with counties to run such programs because it lacks offices or personnel in Utah's 29 counties.

"We're the service provider, but we have no ability to manage the money," said Utah County Commissioner Jerry Grover. "At some point, we're going to say, 'We're not going to sign these (contracts) anymore. We just can't afford it.'"

Meantime, residents' demand for some of those services is on the rise.

"Counties are (saying), 'Well, wait a minute. We didn't ask for these (programs) in the first place,' " said Brent Gardner, Utah Association of Counties executive director.

Gardner told the Legislature's Government Revenue and Tax System Tax Force on Friday that without more money, counties will hand programs, described as "grossly under funded" in a UAC report, back to the state. Some already have.

Salt Lake County recently turned motor vehicle registration over to the Utah State Tax Commission. District courts, juvenile detention and indigent medical services also have reverted to the state over the years.

Counties took on mental health with the understanding the state would pick up 80 percent of the cost. The state's share has fallen to about 60 percent, leaving some counties to pay twice what they agreed upon, Gardner said.

"Aren't citizens you provide mental health services for county citizens?" asked task force co-chairman Sen. John Valentine, R—Orem. "We're making a contribution to it. But you're saying you want 100 percent?"

The current arrangement works as long as cost-sharing is reasonable, Gardner said.

Staffing state courts with clerks and bailiffs has proved particularly burdensome in some areas. Rep. Greg Curtis, R—Sandy, suggested counties simply tell the courts they're not going do it anymore. Valentine took it step further, saying they could close the courthouse.

Gardner said a county sheriff has no choice but send deputies or a "judge will hold them in contempt" of court.

Property tax — counties' largest general fund revenue source — made up 31 percent of counties' total income in 1999, down 10 percent from 1991.

Three years ago, the Legislature gave counties the option to impose sales tax, provided they give up some property tax revenue. They jumped at the chance to diversify their income base.

Counties also slash budgets and raise property taxes to compensate, though Gardner said voter-conscious elected officials are hesitant to do the latter.

Counties each year ask the Legislature to better fund specific programs. But rather than handle the piecemeal requests, Gardner said, he wants lawmakers to resolve the funding problems as a whole.

E-MAIL: romboy@desnews.com