ST. GEORGE – The Board of Education for the Washington County School District approved a 3 percent tax increase during a public Truth-in-Taxation hearing Tuesday held at the school district offices, 121 West Tabernacle Street in St. George, despite opposition from the Utah Taxpayers Association and others. The tax will be included in the county’s 2015 property taxes.
The tax hike is the second increase in Washington County property taxes for school district purposes in two years, in addition to a voter-approved $185 million construction bond passed in 2013 which is repaid by the taxpayers funds are issued.
Less than 15 members of the public spoke at the hearing; teachers and former teachers in favor of the tax increase outnumbered other members of the public more than 3 to 1.
“There is an essential link between strong public schools and a strong economy,” Amy Barton, school district teacher and president of the Washington Education Association, an affiliate of the Utah Education Association, said. “Investing in public schools stimulates the economy in all the communities in the county.”
School employees spend their dollars locally, Barton said, supporting local businesses and helping the recovery of the local economy.
“When businesses look to relocate or expand,” Barton said, “a top reason that they give in choosing one city over another is education. Businesses want to operate where they can find a qualified pool of employees.”
A recent World Bank study showed that investment in public education gives a 14.3 percent return on taxpayer investment over a 10-year period, Barton said, while stocks only return an average of 6.3 percent.
Others spoke against the tax hike, including Utah Taxpayers Association President Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. Stephenson owns a second home in Washington County and also serves as chair of the Utah Legislature’s Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
“For you to now add this tax adds insult to injury,” Stephenson said. “(The legislators) are doing all we can to support you. I think this idea of adding a tax every year is just insensitive to those who have supported you the most.”
Stephenson said the truth had been spoken at the hearing, but not the whole truth. In response to a comment about how Utah should be “ashamed of being dead last” in per-pupil spending, Stephenson said that statement needs to be put into perspective.
“Utah has increased its spending per student, after adjustment for inflation, since 1970,” Stephenson said, “we have doubled our spending per student.”
“If you look at the administrative overhead costs and the other costs in Utah, you will see that we are very competitive,” Stephenson said.
Clint Frei said that he appreciates teachers for excelling at “making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” and they deserve adequate compensation.
“That being said, my salary has not increased 9 percent in the last two years, and I doubt the average middle class salary has increased 9 percent in the last two years,” Frei said, referring to the total of last year’s increase of 6 percent added to the current tax hike of 3 percent.
“I feel like this is asking too much,” Frei said. “They asked for money last year, they asked for a bond, and I think there are other ways to properly compensate our teachers through administrative … cuts or things of that nature. I think this is asking too much of the taxpayer.”
Claudia Empey did not say whether she was for or against the tax hike, but still spoke to the board.
“Even with the increases in salaries for teachers, new teachers still qualify for free and reduced lunches with the kids that they have,” Empey said. “That’s something to keep in mind.”
School district officials said the tax hike was needed to help the district catch up with inflation, and to prevent further depletion of the district’s rainy day fund, a move that is needed to maintain the district’s bond rating, district business administrator Brent Bills said at the hearing.
Rather than raising taxes a little every year, Stephenson said in a previous interview, the district should wait until there are significant needs, and then propose a more substantial tax increase. Identifying specific needs for a tax increase can generate more community support, Stephenson said.
It’s appropriate to make adjustments for inflation every five to 10 years, Stephenson said, but doing it every year makes a mockery of the Truth-in-Taxation process.
School districts, cities and other government entities have the power to collect property taxes. To increase taxes, an entity must hold a hearing to take public comment, but is not legally bound by comments received.
About the Washington County Board of Education
The Washington County Board of Education was established under the authority of the Utah Constitution and consists of seven members elected by district to four-year terms. The last general election for the school board was held November 4, 2014, filling four seats. Three seats will be up for election in November 2016.
Among the enumerated authorities and responsibilities of the board, the Board of Education is authorized to levy taxes to fulfill its obligation to provide for public schools within the District.
St. George News Editor-in-Chief Joyce Kuzmanic contributed to this report.
- School district seeks property tax increase; 2nd bump in 2 years; public hearing
- School district honors retiring teachers, hears dual immersion report, comment on baseball field
- On uncommon ground; common core in Washington County School District, 2014
- Letter to the Editor: School bond benefits everyone – 2013
- School District asking voters to approve $185 million bond for new schools -2013
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