ST. GEORGE – Residents should pass Proposition 1 or face the consequences of rougher roads, fewer city services and potentially higher costs in the long run, St. George Mayor Jon Pike told the St. George Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.
The ballot measure would raise local sales tax by 0.25 percent for transportation infrastructure funding – or 1 cent out of every $4.
Officials say the tax is needed to make up for a shortfall in transportation revenue that used to come from the state gas tax.
Municipalities and counties throughout the state are feeling the squeeze; local entities have had to supplement road maintenance by dipping into their general funds, which leaves less for other services that are desired by residents.
Pike spoke in favor of the tax, which would be used for roads and public transit.
“The local option sales tax is another piece of the puzzle of trying to fund transportation and transit in the state,” Pike said.
In 2015, the Legislature raised the tax for the first time in nearly 20 years. The tax was increased by 5 cents per gallon of gasoline.
“We do get some increased benefit from that gas tax; in St. George’s case, about $400,000 a year,” Pike said.
“But that still isn’t enough,” he said. “It’s not even close to enough with the increasing cost of transportation and the additional miles being driven.”
The Legislature also authorized the local option sales tax – presented to Washington County voters as Proposition 1 – as a way to provide counties and cities with additional funding.
At the chamber meeting, St. George Public Works Director Cameron Cutler explained some of the difficulties of building and maintaining roads in an area with complex topography.
“We have mountains, we have rivers, we have washes,” Cutler said, as well as the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve which borders the most heavily populated cities in the county.
But the geographical features residents love are also obstacles to transportation and make building and maintaining a transportation system more difficult and costly.
For example, there are nine major bridges in St. George; the Mall Drive Bridge cost $9 million and the environmental approval process took 10 years to complete, Cutler said.
Geography creates a series of choke-points, or congested areas, that need improvements to facilitate traffic flow, Cutler said.
“When we have revenues, we try to balance that out between new roadways, existing roadways and pavement management, trying to keep that transportation moving,” Cutler said.
As far as pavement maintenance goes, everyone loves to drive on new road surfaces, he said. However, if those surfaces are not maintained, they degrade and become not only rougher, but more expensive to fix.
Regular, less expensive treatments can prevent far more expensive road repaving projects, Cutler said.
Maintenance treatments range from 3 cents to 33 cents per square foot of asphalt – but remilling or repaving a roadway can cost as much as $10 per square foot.
If the measure is passed, St. George is anticipated to receive an annual amount of $1.4 million for road infrastructure and $1.6 million for the SunTran public transit service.
Washington City would receive $311,100; Hurricane would get $205,500; Santa Clara would get $59,300 and Ivins would get $75,600 for roads and $37,600 for its part of SunTran.
The mayors of each of the cities mentioned, including St. George, signed a letter featured on the Washington County website outlining why they believe Proposition 1 is needed.
It is anticipated that between 30 and 40 percent of the sales tax would be paid by visitors to the county.
A public hearing on the issue was held Tuesday night at the Washington County Administrative Building in St. George.
Pike and Cutler were on hand to share data related to St. George’s own road funding needs, as were others who spoke in favor of the quarter-cent sales tax and the hope it would pass in November.
However, proposition 1 is not without opposition.
“When is it too much?” said Larry Meyers, chairman of the Dixie Republican Forum. “We feel like at every level we’re taxed … I don’t think any of us who oppose this tax increase are against roads or against transportation. I personally think it’s one of most important jobs our government fulfills.”
Road infrastructure should be a priority of the county and city governments, Meyers said, and followed up with a question if it was being treated that way in relation to county and municipal budgets.
“Each city needs to look at its budget and determine what its needs are,” he said. “What can we change? What can we cut? What can we privatize? … Fund (the roads) with existing revenues we have.”
As a possible alternative to Proposition 1, Meyer’s suggested that popular events that routinely bring tourists to the county be looked at more in relation to road funding.
Ivins resident Lisa Rutheford also spoke against the local option sales tax, adding that no one was talking about how the state gas tax passed in 2015 can go up as much as 40 cents in the coming years. The current tax was raised to 5 cents per gallon.
The tax-per-gallon system will also eventually be replaced with a sales tax-like system once wholesale gas prices hit $2.45 per gallon, which is projected to happen within the next decade. The gas tax would change to 12 percent of the wholesale price and be adjusted once a year. Tax increases are capped at 40 cents per gallon.
While she supports public transit like SunTran, Rutheford said she is not in favor of the “shotgun approach” Proposition 1 proposes.
Like Meyers, she supports looking at alternative ways to fund road infrastructure and also looking more at tourists-drawing events in this regard.
“It tourists are one of the tax targets for this tax, can that effort be better focused than this shotgun effort?” she said.
Other counties have rejected tax, Rutheford said, adding Washington County should do the same.
Even if Proposition one isn’t passed, Ivins Mayor Chris Hart said the level of maintenance on the road will suffer and the city will end up having to let the roads deteriorate.
Delaying road maintenance can costs a city – and therefore the taxpayers – six to 10 times as much for repairs versus what preventive maintenance would have been.
As well, for a smaller city like Ivins that generates much of its general budget through property tax, it’s an avenue they’ll have to consider looking into more, Hart said. Money may also be taken from other city services and put towards roads to compensate for the shortfall, he said.
“Cities are faced with the choice that either we provide this service in the manner our residents expect, and find ways to budget that revenue to do it, or if we’re constricted to a point we simply don’t have any place to give, then the level of service has to drop off,” Hart said. “That’s just the way government functions.”
Election Day is Nov. 8. Early voting begins Oct. 24. Polling locations can be found on Vote.Utah.gov.
St. George News reporter Julie Applegate contributed to this article.
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