Town hall meeting: Locals address task force about tax reform

ST. GEORGE — Dozens of Washington County residents attended a town hall meeting Saturday to advise Utah’s Tax and Restructuring and Equalization Task Force about tax reforms.

“The task force itself is not put together to raise taxes, we have plenty of money. What we have is an allocation problem,” said Rep. Francis Gibson, R-District 65, the task force’s co-chair.

The gathering at Dixie Technical College Auditorium is part of a statewide “listening tour” where politicians travel to eight different communities in search of key insights, concerns and possible solutions for revising Utah’s tax code, which many regard as outdated. Issues related to education are commonly mentioned at the town halls, Gibson said, and on Saturday he heard from audience members representing Washington County teachers.

“The No. 1 factor in student success in the school is a highly qualified teacher,” said Amy Barton, a Washington County first-grade teacher and president of the Washington County Education Association. “It is critical that we continue to be able to attract and retain qualified teachers in our classrooms. We must continue with a tax restructure that supports public education.”

Thirty residents addressed the task force, each given 90 seconds to voice concerns. Some Washington County teachers cited what they consider to be poor funding allocation within the county. One teacher wondered where all of the funds earmarked for education are going, stating she has to beg for resources and materials and doesn’t make a livable wage.

Members of Utah’s Task Restructuring and Equalization Task Force gather in the Dixie Technical College Auditorium during the town hall meeting in St. George, Utah, June 29, 2019 | Photo by Ryann Richardson, St. George News

Organized in May, the task force was created on the heels of the short-lived HB 441, which proposed taxing economic services in order to expand Utah’s sales tax base. Local attorneys, real state agents and small business owners expressed opposition to taxing services in a similar fashion to HB 441’s proposal.

Apple Valley Mayor Marty Lisonbee echoed those concerns, saying broad solutions to tax reform can have disproportionate effects on different communities. Taxing services, for instance, might positively impact Santa Clara, which is driven by services, but would have disastrous effects on Apple Valley, which is traditionally driven by sales tax.

“We have to be sensitive to that,” Gibson said. “Is there a certain tax policy for counties of a certain size or a smaller county? All things to be considered, and we will put that data in to see how they will be affected and what that impact will be.”

Task force co-chair state Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-District 25, asserted the tax base can only support Utah’s growing population for the next couple of years before Utah finds itself unable to fund increased demand for public services such as public safety, health and human services, public employees and clean air.

Participants of Utah’s Task Restructuring and Equalization Task Force Town Hall meeting meet with task force members during the open house at Dixie Technical College in St. George, Utah, June 29, 2019 | Photo by Ryann Richardson, St. George News

Notably in attendance at Saturday’s gathering was St. George Mayor Jon Pike. From his perspective, the problems taxing Utah’s taxes are a combination of three issues: Revenue, spending and structure.

Among 248 cities and towns across the state, it would be difficult to have each and every community represented, but it is “unfortunate that, frankly, once again, we’re not represented,” Pike told task force panelists. The mayor expressed gratitude that the task force included the St. George/Washington County area as one of its eight town halls stops.

“It would always be better if we had someone from our area on it,” Pike said, referring to representation on the task force itself. “I think with the growing economic engine that we have in this county, that should be the case more often than not.”

Members of the audience expressed support for particular concerns by raising their hands. Topics included the implementation of sales tax on services, as well as an amendment of the state Constitution that would allow income tax to contribute to the general fund.

During his appearance before the task force, Pike represented three interests: As a citizen, as a mayor in Southern Utah and as the president of the Utah League of Cities and Towns. The biggest point of emphasis, he stressed, is the need to spend ample time to assessing the impact proposed changes might have on businesses, communities and individuals.

Residents participating in Utah’s Task Restructuring and Equalization Task Force Town Hall meeting step up to the microphone to voice their concerns during the comment session at Dixie Technical College in St. George, Utah, June 29, 2019 | Photo by Ryann Richardson, St. George News

“I’ve said (before), ‘This is like playing chess, not checkers,’” Hillyard said. “It’s very complicated. Every move you make has all sorts of ramifications.”

Today, a period of economic growth and prosperity for the Beehive State, is the perfect time to address the growing need for tax restructuring, Hillyard said.

The task force tour concludes July 30. After the final town hall meeting, task force members will reconvene to discuss various community needs and possible solutions. They will then create an agenda for discussion before drafting a final report.

The final report is due before a special legislative session can be held, projected some time in September.

“It’s a big deal,” Pike said. “It’s really something that, in my opinion, we have to measure twice and cut once.”

Email: rrichardson@stgnews.com 

Twitter: @STGnews| @AvereeRyann

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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