ST. GEORGE — While an additional $7 tagged onto the annual property tax of homes in the county was originally labeled as “pretty insignificant” by the general manager of the Washington County Water Conservancy District, those who spoke at a public hearing of the district’s board of trustees meeting Wednesday thoroughly denounced the proposed increase. However, despite the protests, the board unanimously passed the hike following the hearing.
The room was packed for the meeting, with some late-comers left standing along the wall. Many came to speak against the proposed tax increase due to the water district’s using part of the tax revenue to help keep rates low for customers. Opponents claim this practice promotes wasteful water use.
They also condemned the tax hike due to revenues from it likely being applied to the Lake Powell Pipeline. Others said the people were taxed enough already.
“It’s taxation by pinpricks,” said Tom Butine of the conservation group Conserve Southwest Utah, which opposes both the tax hike and the Lake Powell Pipeline.
Property tax details
The property tax increase will raise property taxes on homes in Washington County an additional $6.81 on a home valued at $291,000.
This translates to a bump in the annual property tax of $97.47 to the water district to $104.39 for a home at the listed value.
The tax for a commercial property of the same value would increase an additional $12.39 a year to $189.61.
While the tax increase is 0.000041 percent, it is estimated to help raise the amount of property tax the water district collects in 2019 by nearly 7 percent over the previous year.
It is estimated the tax hike will produce $650,000 for the water district and will be applied to an overall estimated $1.6 billion price tag attached to the water district’s current and future capital projects. The Lake Powell Pipeline currently accounts for approximately $1.3 billion of the projected costs.
Ron Thompson, the water district general manager, previously told St. George News that the increase was needed to help keep up with inflation.
The water district applies property tax revenue to its capital projects, as well as public safety initiatives and several programs, such as flood control, watershed development, endangered species protection, water quality testing and drought protection.
Property taxes account for 10 percent of the funding used for capital projects, with 15 percent coming from water rates and the majority, the remaining 75 percent, coming from impact fees collected from new growth.
The water district has also proposed raising impact fees from around $8,000 currently to $15,000 or more in coming years as a way to help pay for the Lake Powell Pipeline.
Water rates among municipalities that buy part of their water supply from the water district, such as Washington City and St George, have also increased by 10 cents each year since the district increased the wholesale price in 2016. The increase is anticipated to continue into 2019.
However, the revenue generated from the 10 cent increase is applied to the cost of treating and delivering water. It is not used to fund current or future projects, according to water district officials.
Opposition: Using property taxes covers the real cost of water
Butine said at the meeting that the tax encourages “unwise water use.”
He said the water district subsidizes around two-thirds of the real cost of water for customers. This creates artificially cheap water that does not create an incentive to conserve.
Conserve Southwest Utah and others have called for a tiered water rate system to replace property tax use. They say people will be more likely to conserve water as they are made to pay the actual price for what they use.
Butine also said they hadn’t seen any plans for how the money from the tax hike would be spent. Not having a plan results in unwise and unaccountable spending, he added.
“We should he talking about increasing water rates here,” a woman from Kanarraville, who hopes to move into Washington County in the future, said.
Thompson previously told St. George News that the board believed how they’ve arranged funding for the water district’s projects and programs is “a fair way to tax versus putting it all in water rates.”
St. Georgee resident Richard Spotts argued the property tax should be reduced or eliminated in relation to covering the cost of water, and he echoed Butine’s words about it promoting wasteful water use.
Spotts also claimed the water district hoards up to 4,200 days worth of cash on hand, based on a study released by the Utah Rivers Council. This would allow the water district to operate for 12 years without the need for additional funding, he said.
St. George News asked the water district about the claim prior to the board meeting. Karry Rathje, the water district’s public information manager, said the claim was untrue.
Those who spoke Wednesday evening also railed against the Lake Powell Pipeline being needed in order to accommodate future growth. Some said they either didn’t want to see any additional growth or advocated for slower, more manageable growth that local water sources could actually support.
According to population projections, Washington County is expected to reach 500,000 people by 2060.
One man, who identified himself as a retired surgeon, compared the continuing growth – and efforts to encourage and accommodate it – to cancer.
Calls for more water conservation and reclamation were also made throughout the public hearing.
Lisa Rutherford, a longtime opponent of the Lake Powell Pipeline who is also associated with Conserve Southwest Utah, said the taxing practices of the water district are also hurting home affordability during an already tight housing market.
Preparing for water needs now and in the future
Following the end of the public hearing, over half of the attendees left as the board called for a recess before voting.
The board unanimously approved the tax hike, while also passing the water district’s $252 million budget for 2019 with the same vote.
Following the vote, St. George Mayor Jon Pike said he was pleased to see so many people attend the meeting. However, he lamented the fact that many of their meetings, which can give the public a better understanding and education of what the water district does, are not often attended by the public.
“It’s not easy stuff” to understand at first, Pike said. “It takes some work.”
Ivins Mayor Chris Hart said he found it interesting that half of room left before the board could respond to the issue brought up during the public hearing.
He said the mission of the water district and its board is to provide for the water needs of Washington County now and in the future, with the latter requiring long-term planning.
“This body seriously goes about trying to decide the best way to go about achieving to that goal,” he said.
Thompson also chimed in following the vote.
“Unless you want to regulate growth with water, you need to plan long-term,” he said. “I don’t see $7 as a windfall and I don’t think many people do either.”
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