Helper prepares to increase city's property tax rate
|Stanley and Moon Canales peer into an old well in an area of Consumers Canyon where coal camps existed years ago. Mosquitoes can breed in areas with standing water, enabling West Nile virus to thrive.|
A proposed property tax hike endorsed by city officials on July 15 faced public scrutiny last Thursday as citizens met at the Helper Civic Auditorium to address the matter.
After accepting comments from local residents on Aug. 5, the Helper council voted to implement the measure that will generate an estimated $35,000 in new revenue for the city next year.
More than 70 Helper citizens attended the meeting to voice opinions about the proposed property tax increase.
Mayor Joe Bo-nacci started the public inout session by explaining the situation to the audience.
"The council unanimously voted to go ahead with this tax increase because they feel that we have no other choice," said the mayor. He explained the difference between what the taxes have been and what they would be if the increase went into effect.
The first speakers brought up a number of points, concentrating primarily on the fact that the council should look for places to cut expenses rather than increase taxes.
A number of people suggested that the city should look at reducing the size of the city's police force. When Helper had all the miners and the railroad people in town years ago, the city's police force was not as large as it is now, commented one resident in attendance at the meeting.
Other residents expressed a concern that the operations of the police force may be keeping people away from the area because of radar stops conducted along U.S. Highway where the road passes through the town.
One man said he had read that Helper was known as the second worst speed trap in the nation. The discussion also turned to whether Helper was actually a business friendly community. One individuals claimed prior Helper officials had driven the "theater people out of town," referring to a professional group that originally planned to utilize the Rio for productions.
Other Helper citizens asked city officials to concentrate on cutting costs rather than increasing taxes.
"Not long ago, I and some others took the challenge this council had put down about finding ways to cut costs in Helper city government and we pointed some out to you," said Ron Mutz. "I can't see that anything toward those suggestions has been done. Maybe we need to put city employees on a four-day work week and reduce some of the expenses."
One resident asked when the last hike was implemented and how the increase would affect an average home's taxes.
"I have no problem using my own property tax notice to show you the change, " said Bonacci. "My house is valued at $55,133 and now I pay $49 to the city per year. If the increase goes into effect, it will raise to $79.29."
The mayor told the audience that, although city officials could not pin down the exact date, it appeared the last property tax increase occurred during the 1980s.
"The problem I have here is that no one is taking into account the 125 vacant homes that we have in town," pointed out John Jones. "They are getting harder to rent and, as taxes go up, we will have to charge more. But I can't say I am exactly against the increase as long as I know what you are going to use the extra money for."
Many citizens expressed similar sentiments regarding the importance of financial accountability throughout the meeting.
"Well, one of the problems we have is the money we received to build the Rio Theater," explained Bonacci, referring to Helper's grant/loan obligations. "Part of the terms of the agreement was that we would hire three full-time employees by 2005. Some of the increased revenues would go to do that."
The town was supposed to hire the three employees in the current year. But the mayor had written a letter and managed to temporarily "begged off" in the matter.
Jones asked if officials had balanced the city's budget for the year.
Helper officials managed to balance the city's current budget, but had to exaggerate revenues to do so, responded Bonacci.
"I proposed we eliminate an (police department) employee at a meeting last winter and was severely chastised for doing so," said the mayor. "It's a difficult situation."
Jones again asked what the people of the town would be getting back for the increase in taxes.
"We would just stay at the status quo," said Bonacci.
One citizen asked what would happen if the city defaulted on the loan for the Rio Theatre. The debt costs the city thousands per year and, under the terms of the agreement, will include covering the salaries of additional employees in the future.
"They would give it to us as a bill that we would have to pay," stated the mayor. "And we would probably never get another grant from anyone."
A business owner in town also came out against the increase.
|Councilman Bob Welch identifies the three kinds of pipes used on Helper's water line from Fish Springs last Friday. The original wooden water line was replaced more than 30 years ago by transite pipe. PVC has replaced transite pipe in places along the system.
The city's water line improvement project will replace the entire line with buried PVC pipe. Helper secured a $500,000 emergency grant from the Utah Community Impact Board to fund the project.
'We found we were losing more water from the holes in the pipe than we were getting through it at the end of the line,' said Welch. 'The engineering on the new system cost about $70,000 and the construction bid came in at $419,000."
Similar grants were discussed at a public meeting Aug. 5 when some citizens proposed that the city just not repay or follow the parameters of a grant/loan on the Rio Theater.
Helper officials indicate that failure to follow the details of an agreement on such money could lead to the town never getting another grant.
"I don't feel we can take another raise," pointed out Steve Giacoletto. The resident owns Workmen's Market, a home and a good deal of property within the city. "My taxes would increase over $400. My utilities are now costing $4,200 more per year since the increases in those. In small business, you need to cut costs to survive and the city may have to do the same. As for the Rio Theater, I say just don't pay the bill and see what happens."
Following the negative comments, citizens supporting the proposed property tax increase started to speak up at the public meeting.
"I support the increase because, when you look at it, it is really very small," said Bianca Dumas.
The resident is one of the citizens actively working toward getting a new swimming pool built in town to replace the old one that was closed in the spring because of maintenance and safety problems.
"The way I figure it, my taxes will only go up about 74 cents per month. I know the increase looks like a $2.34 per month but because some of the other taxes we pay on our property are going down, it actually only amounts to about two cents per day instead," continued Dumas.
Several citizens complained about Helper city purportedly doing little to increase revenues in other ways, like focusing on attracting tourists and bringing new businesses into the town.
"We recently installed a dump station for recreational vehicles that we hope will bring people into town off the highway," responded Councilman Chuck Buchanan. "We also are going to pick up some revenue from Union Pacific because they recently converted their power system from Utah Power & Light to ours. But we also have a deteriorating infrastructure. For instance, the city hall is getting older and needs some new things like drapes, blinds, carpets and other items."
The councilman's comments brought an outcry from members of the audience who considered the city hall project unnecessary. However, supporters of the increase continued to put forth the case in favor of the proposed hike
"I am willing to contribute a hell of a lot more than 74 cents per month to not have drug addicts live next door to me, yards that look good and a city that has the money to provide services," said Dumas.
Another supporter of the tax, David Dornan, pointed out that the city will only have a future if Helper invests in the community.
"Your house is your savings account," pointed out Dornan. "I know a lot of people who have lived here forever and think this is a hell hole. But I moved here because of what I see as its charm. Main Street is much improved in the last few years and it will eventually become a dynamic part of the community."
The comments brought guffaws from some of the audience and the mayor had to remind Helper residents in attendance at the meeting that the discussion about the situation should remain civil.
Other supporters pointed out that the town would be better off if everyone tried to shop locally and support the businesses in the area.
There was also discussion about possible support for the theater through shows and dance groups who have suggested they want to use it.
"I moved here only two and a half years ago, but I think people are short sighted about this tax hike," said Kathleen Royster. "Sure I had to close my gallery because it didn't make it business wise, but despite that I still think a new pool and the theater are going to benefit the town. This place just needs more optimism."
However, there were still many who didn't think the raise was worth it unless the local government showed something for it.
"You said that you needed to increase utility rates earlier this year to balance the budget. Now you say you need to increase the taxes to do that as well," stated Grant Howell. "Gentlemen, I question your credibility."
Another citizen maintained that the town and Helper officials do not encourage business. But the mayor took issue with the contention.
"If that is true, tell us what we are doing that is keeping business out of town. That is what I want to know," said Bonacci.
No one in attendance at the meeting seemed to have a specific answer to the mayor's question.
As the public meeting progressed, the discussion turned to various problems in the city and how the situations could be solved
A couple of residents in attendance at the gathering wondered why the town couldn't get money from grants or loans to resolve some of the city's financial problems.
"The situation is such that we just have too many debts," pointed out the Helper mayor. "We have no bonding capability left. We have been able to get some grants, but good part of securing those is dependent on our ability to maintain infrastructure and some fiscal analysts feel we can't do that. When we had to get the grant this year to repair the water line from Fish Creek for our water supply, some of the engineers from the CIB (Utah Community Impact Board) said we shouldn't have it. We only got it because (Carbon Commissioner) Mike Milovich was on the board and was able to use some of his connections to help us."
At the conclusion of last Thursday's public meeting, the mayor called for a vote of the council. The Helper officials voted unanimously in favor of implementing the property tax increase.
"We did what we felt we needed to do to keep the city going, honor our commitments and give the citizens the services they need," said Councilman Bob Welch the day after the meeting. "But it wasn't an easy decision to make."