CEDAR CITY — The question of whether the town of Brian Head should increase its police force – and if so, how to pay for it – was the central topic of a two-hour public forum meeting last Wednesday evening.
The town council heard from residents weighing in on the issue, both in person and via Zoom online, but before the public input session, Brian Head Town Manager Bret Howser and other town officials presented a slideshow explaining the situation.
During his introductory remarks, Mayor Clayton Calloway referred to Brian Head’s “growing pains,” noting that the town has been steadily growing for some time.
“This last year has kind of just pushed us over the top and maxed out the limit of some of our ability to manage and handle it,” he said.
Brian Head Town Marshal Dan Benson explained that he and his officers are all certified in multiple aspects of emergency response and enforcement.
“Our marshals … are not just police officers, but they’re also cross-trained in fire, rescue, EMS, fuels mitigation projects, things like that,” he said. “So when you get one of the marshals, you’re getting five different departments in one, basically.”
Benson said counting himself, the public safety part consists of five full-time officers, the same number it has had for the past two decades.
“In 2000, Brian Head hired our fifth full-time marshal/public safety officer,” he said. “Since 2000, we’ve been operating at that same staffing.”
The department also includes one part-time administrative assistant, a part-time fire marshal and a volunteer fire department comprising 25 volunteers, he noted.
“We greatly appreciate them,” Benson said of the firefighters. “Without them, we really can’t put those fires out.”
Benson noted that Brian Head Public Safety Department responded to a record number of 1,038 calls during 2020, an average of more than 207 calls per full-time officer.
That’s the highest workload of any law enforcement agency in Iron County, he added. By comparison, Parowan Police Department was in second place with 172 calls per officer, Enoch Police was third with 136, Cedar City Police was fourth with 99, Iron County Sheriff’s Office was fifth with 75 and Southern Utah University Police was sixth with 55.
If Brian Head would have had six officers last year, its caseload would have dropped to 176, Benson said, which would have still been higher than any of the other five agencies.
“With a seventh officer, we would be right around the 150 range, making our caseload a lot more manageable,” he said.
However, town officials stated that each new officer would cost the town an estimated $85,000 per year in salary, equipment and benefits.
“We use data from the Wasatch Compensation Group to set our pay ranges,” Howser explained afterward. “We do benchmark towards the top of the range for our police officers in order to retain our marshals better, since they’re so highly trained.”
The possibility of hiring a code enforcement officer was also discussed at length, as that was seen as a less-expensive alternative than adding a sworn public safety officer. Doing so would also free up the marshals to focus on more critical incidents, Howser said during the meeting.
The presentation then outlined three primary options for increasing revenue in the budget to pay for the added position(s): sales tax, property tax and an “enhanced service business license fee” assessed to those who rent out their residential properties on a nightly or short-term basis. One or any combination of those revenue options could be exercised, town officials said.
The last option raises the issue of the increasing popularity of short-term rentals. Fewer than 100 people live in Brian Head year-round, with the exact number being around 93 or 94, according to multiple commenters at the forum. However, a national company that assists short-term rental property owners released a report Tuesday saying that as the COVID vaccination effort continues, many people are feeling more comfortable traveling. The report lists Brian Head as No. 2 on the most popular “vaxication” destinations in the U.S. behind Las Vegas, Nevada.
While this growing popularity in short-term rentals has helped bring a steady influx of people to town, some residents say it comes at a cost.
Larry Edgerton and his wife, Charlene Foley, are among those full-time residents. Edgerton, who participated in last week’s meeting virtually via Zoom, said he lives near two short-term rental properties that he says are an almost constant source of myriad problems, including overcrowding, trespassing, vandalism and noise. Parking is also an issue, he said, particularly in the winter when the roads are already narrower due to being lined with piles of plowed snow.
Edgerton said he is tired of his complaints going unheeded by police and town officials.
“Code enforcement is needed, not more police,” he said. “The town needs to determine what additional police calls were the result of STRs (short term rentals) and assess the fees accordingly.”
Fellow resident David Haefner agreed. In an email, he stated that many of these visitors are “bringing all their own food, beverages and entertainment and thus not contributing to the tax base by not frequenting town businesses.”
“It is therefore extremely disingenuous to propose that the taxpaying homeowners and residents not renting their properties pay for the parasitic activity of those homeowners renting their homes,” Haefner added.
However, Howser later told Cedar City News that short-term rentals are not solely to blame.
“It’s difficult to say that one business type is responsible for the increased demand on public safety,” he said. “People come to Brian Head for a variety of reasons, and the availability of nightly rentals contributes to the high number of visitors. It’s really the volume of people we’re trying to address.”
Howser said the five-member Town Council, along with city staff, will be using the information gathered at the public forum last week, along with other comments received via email or phone, to guide their decision on whether to seek additional funding for public safety and/or code enforcement.
“I expect the council will decide whether to include a property tax increase in the budget by mid-June,” Howser said. “That would trigger the truth-in-taxation process, which would include notifications and hearings, and a final adoption of the rate wouldn’t occur until probably September.”
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