ST. GEORGE – Washington County residents will get to decide whether an adequately funded transportation infrastructure is worth a quarter-cent tax. The question will be on the ballot in the Nov. 8 general election.
The 0.25 percent general sales tax would provide funding to the county and its municipalities for transportation needs. It equals 1 cent for every $4 spent in the county. The tax would not apply to food unless purchased at a restaurant.
The Washington County Commission approved putting the question on the ballot Tuesday at a regular commission meeting.
Funds from the tax would be spent on critical local transportation needs including walking and biking trails, road improvements and public transit service expansion.
If approved by voters, the tax would be used to help make up the shortfall in transportation revenues, which have been falling for decades because of increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles and more vehicles using alternate fuels, such as hydrogen, electricity and compressed natural gas, which do not pay fuel tax.
Several area mayors and officials addressed the county commission Tuesday, asking that the initiative be placed on the ballot.
Those who spoke included St. George Mayor Jon Pike, Ivins Mayor Chris Hart, Washington City Mayor Ken Neilson, along with members of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce and former Utah Rep. David Clark.
“Cities are finding themselves in a crunch,” Hart said, “more and more travel miles on the roads, increasing costs of maintenance and a reduction over time in available funding.”
“So what happens in response is, cities take more and more – are forced to – take more and more out of their general funds and devote them to transportation, thus taking funds away from other services that we provide.”
All three county commissioners expressed reluctance to raise taxes, but decided to leave the decision up to the taxpayers. County officials cannot advocate for or against the measure, however; the commission has to give approval for it to appear on the ballot.
“We really do need to trust the voters,” Commissioner Victor Iverson said. He encourages residents to become as educated as they can before making a decision.
“I hope that each of the voters … will take the time to really come out to their city halls and talk to them about their transportation needs,” Iverson said.
At the same time that transportation funds have been falling, costs have gone up.
“There is kind of this perfect storm that a lot of people need to realize is that the cost of transportation systems – in other words, the costs of asphalt, the cost of cement, the cost of constructing roads – has gone up 200-300 percent over the last decade or so,” Iverson said.
Hart and others believe the local option tax is the best way to fund the transportation infrastructure because 30-40 percent of the tax would be paid by visitors to the county.
The local option would prevent a transportation funding crisis and keep officials from having to use other funding methods such as raising property taxes.
In response to falling transportation tax dollars, the Utah Legislature passed Senate Bill 362 in 2015, enacting laws for Transportation Infrastructure Funding in an effort to alleviate continuing shortfalls in transportation funding.
The bill raised the state’s gas tax by 5 cents per gallon of fuel and authorized Utah counties to implement a local sales tax option of 0.25 percent via voter approval.
The municipalities of St. George, LaVerkin, Toquerville, Santa Clara, Ivins, Hildale, Enterprise, Rockville and Hurricane have all passed resolutions stating the need for the tax and encouraging the commission to put the question to the voters Nov. 8.
Several area cities wanted the measure on the ballot in November 2015. That didn’t happen because there wasn’t a countywide election in 2015 and putting the initiative on the ballot would have cost $80,000 or more. Also, county officials at the time believed the measure would have been defeated.
Read more: Cities face road funding crisis, seek ballot initiative for transportation tax – June 2015
If passed, revenue from the tax would be divided among the county, cities, and towns. The funds would be spent on roads, safety improvements, sidewalks, curbs and gutters, traffic signs and signals and street lighting.
The money could also fund the construction, maintenance or operation of active transportation facilities and public transit systems.
The sales and use tax, if passed, will benefit municipalities, unincorporated areas of the county and the county as follows:
- Areas without public transit service: Cities, towns and unincorporated parts of the county will receive 0.10 percent tax revenue and 0.15 percent tax revenue will go to the county.
- Areas with public transit service: St. George and Ivins will receive 0.10 percent tax revenue for public transit use, 0.10 percent tax revenue will go to the county’s cities, towns and unincorporated areas, and the county will receive 0.05 percent tax revenue.
The ballot measure will include arguments for and against the measure, as well as rebuttals to the arguments.
A public hearing will be held Oct 18; arguments for and against the measure will be presented and a public hearing will be held to take comments about the imposition and use of the tax.
The hearing will be held at 6 p.m. in commission chambers at the County Administration Building, 197 East Tabernacle St., St. George.
- Note: The 2015 Transportation Infrastructure Funding bill was brought during the 2015 general session of the Utah Legislature. The Senate Conference Committee presented the sixth substitute bill to the Senate which passed 20-8, with 1 not voting; from Southern Utah, Sens. Ralph Okerlund, David Hinkins, Steve Urquhart and Evan Vickers all voted for the bill. The House Conference Committee then presented the sixth substitute to the House, which passed 44-29, with 2 not voting; from Southern Utah, Reps. Brad Last, John Westwood, Michael Noel, V. Lowry Snow, Don Ipson, and Merrill Nelson voted for the bill; Rep. Jon Stanard voted against it. The bill was signed by the governor March 27 and the law went into effect July 1, 2015.
St. George News senior reporter Mori Kessler contributed to this report.
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