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Front Page » March 4, 2004 » Local News » Debt loads plague local governments
Published 4,237 days ago

Debt loads plague local governments

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Sun Advocate reporter

When the bottom started to fall out of the national and local economy, Carbon County and cities in the area scrambled to alleviate the negative impacts of the recession.

"Up until then, this job used to be fun," commented county clerk-auditor Bob Pero during a recent interview. "But when there isn't enough money to go around, it becomes hard to budget and having to make cuts in things makes it even harder."

Last fall, the county commission struggled to come up with a balanced budget for the current year because revenues have dropped.

"If things don't improve this next year, we could be in real trouble," said Pero. "Things are just flat."

Several towns in the county are also struggling with budget woes. Helper is a prime example.

A few weeks ago, the Helper council met in a work meeting because the city's budget revenues are not up to expectations.

"Our revenues are decreasing on a yearly basis and we need help in how to manage this growing problem," pointed out Mayor Joe Bonacci at the work session. "We have the lowest mill levy of anyone in the county, except Scofield."

But Helper, like most government entities, remains hesitant to raise property taxes.

Many local residents already feel set upon by last year's voted increase in the school leeway tax and other rising costs.

The feelings came out during a meeting of the Helper council a couple of weeks ago when presenters from a committee put together to forge a plan for a new county recreation center/library came to ask for input from the council and the public. Some residents flat out told those present that people in the town can't afford higher taxes, no matter what it is for.

That has happened at the county level as well. More than once this year the county commission has been approached by residents who said their taxes have increased way too much in the last year, yet the commission had literally nothing to do with the taxes those people were speaking about, increasing. In fact, the county's assessment has actually gone down the last few years, and the city's have remained the same.

Property taxes are distributed amongst a number of entities, some of which charge more than others. But when the taxes go up the first place people head to complain is the county assessor, the commissioners or their city councils. In the case of county wide tax increases this year most can be attributed to the school leeway increasing.

"Most of what people pay is going to other places, but they complain to us,' says Bonacci.

Increases in taxes are bad enough during good economic times, but when income is low it is even harder.

"The money that is coming in doesn't even cover the cost of public services," says Chuck Buchanan, a Helper City Councilman. "We could raise our taxes and in my opinion the levy should probably be higher."

Helper is in a precarious position, because being one of the older towns in the county, it's infrastructure is beginning to show signs of age. Many of the sewer and water lines in the town are very old and there are also problems with the city owned electrical transmission system as well. Some of the wooden poles that hold the wires in town are almost rotten and need to be replaced.

Things are so bad that the city council voted to not give a court clerk who is has met the new employee probationary standards a traditional raise from the starting $6 an hour wage to $6.25 a couple of weeks ago.

"It sad because it is something we have done in the past," said Buchanan at the meeting. "But we need a moratorium on spending."

When the county commissioners came down to approving their final budget in December, they had to ask the Carbon Transportation and Recreation Special Service District to give them some money to fund the soil conservation officers position they support through the National Resource Conservation Service and for a lobbyist consultant they use in Washington D.C. to keep payment in lieu of taxes monies coming into the counties coffers.

To some citizens, these may sound like unneeded positions but the soil conservation officers job often brings hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal money a year for irrigation projects to the area while the lobbyist has increased the amount of money the county gets for the federal land that is located here by numerous times over the years he has been working for the county. If either of these positions were eliminated, it would mean a big loss of dollars to the county.

Some citizens, do however, get upset when they see money spent in some areas while public officials complain about being short on funds. But officials point out that some money they receive is very restricted and can only be used for certain purposes, even though an entity may be hurting badly in another area. A good example of this is Class "C" road funds that come down from the state. That money can only be spent on items related to roads, even if every water line a city owns is leaking.

Price is also facing hard times, which proves that no entity lives in a vacuum in eastern Utah's economy..

"We are doing fine financially, but there were a lot of projects we couldn't do that we had planned to do this past year," explains Pat Larsen, the city's finance director. "Many of our revenue sources did decrease or they are very flat."

This all comes on the heels of increasing costs, particularly for employees. The biggest gash that creates bleeding in that area for almost all government agencies is that health insurance is going up so fast, any possible increases for salaries get eaten up by the premiums. But while flatness in growth is one thing; decreases in revenue are another.

"Our property tax was flat last year, but more importantly our sales taxes fell well below projections," stated Larsen. "Collections went down $120,000 from the 2002 fiscal year to the 2003 budgeting period."

The area struggled to gain new business during the blast off economy of the late 1990's, and nationally it certainly is not as good as that now. A growth in business in the area would solve at least some of the money woes communities are facing.

Delynn Fielding, the counties economic director, continues to work to bring new businesses into the area and to help those from the area that want to start their own. His recent activities concerning a gate company from the southeast has shown how the community can work together to at least even the playing field with other potential suitors for businesses that want to start up new operations. A recent trip to Kentucky and a tour of their manufacturing facility there told him a lot about the company, but the fact that there is no personal connection here, or apparently in either Box Elder County or Iron County, two other areas vying for the potential plant, says a lot as to why it seems no one area has gained a clear lead over another for the expansion.

"We continue to work with a number of businesses that are thinking about moving here or setting up some kind of facility in the area," states Fielding. "But when I look back of the last three or four years, almost everything that has been successfully started up here had some type of local connection. People who ran a company that wanted to set something up here had family or business contacts already in the area. The similarity between the successful enterprises and that local connection factor is that is to much to ignore."

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