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Utah lawmakers pass tax changes in special session

Utah lawmakers have approved lowering the state’s income tax while increasing taxes on food, gasoline and a list of services in a sweeping, contentious tax-change package.

The plan passed the legislature in a special session last week after some last-minute changes in response to concerns that the increased food tax would hurt low-income people. Lawmakers now plan to send out checks to those residents to balance out the effect.

The legislature’s three members from Box Elder County — Sen. Scott Sandall and Reps. Lee Perry and Joel Ferry — all voted for the measure.

Still, the bill didn’t reach a two-thirds majority in either the House or Senate, so it could be challenged by a citizen referendum and may not go into effect immediately, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. The overall tax cut is expected to add up to a total of $160 million.

Gov. Gary Herbert has pushed for what he calls tax reform to address a shrinking sales-tax base, and said he planned to sign the bill that cuts the income tax rate from 4.95% to 4.66%.

“Creating a stable system does not necessarily mean collecting more tax revenue. It means collecting the same amount of taxes overall — or maybe even a lower amount — but from a wider segment of the economy, in a more fair and equitable manner. That’s what this bill does,” Herbert said.

Republican Rep. Jeff Stenquist of Draper called the package perhaps “the largest tax cut in the history of the state of Utah,” the Deseret News reported.

The food tax, though, would increase from 1.75% to the full 4.85% state sales tax rate.

Critics say that change would fall hardest on people least able to afford it. For people who are struggling, even a few more dollars could mean “the difference between a gallon of milk or diapers for their babies,” said Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla.

Lawmakers responded to those concerns by adding a provision giving lower-income people with dependents a one-time check for up to $200 early next year. Many of them will also receive a grocery tax credit after the full sales tax is restored, though advocates worry extra steps mean many won’t see the same savings. Several candidates for governor in Utah, including Jon Huntsman Jr., have said they are against raising the food tax.

The plan would also apply new taxes to gas as well as certain services, such as streaming media, ride-sharing apps, pet care and dating sites. Previous versions of the plan would have taxed more services, but the list was trimmed during the process.

Lawmakers considered one other bill in the special session for behavioral health services. The bill, which passed with no opposition, moved $3.9 million from unused appropriations for Medicaid expansion, due to low Medicaid enrollment, to provide funding for behavioral health treatment at the request of county health departments.

From rails to rodeos

More than 150 years after the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was completed in what is now Box Elder County, the effects of that monumental milestone are still being felt.

The 150th anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory was quite a spectacle this year, drawing tens of thousands of visitors over the course of a long weekend and putting Box Elder County in the global spotlight.

Along with world-class wildlife watching and other outdoor recreation opportunities, as well as a county fair that turned a profit for the first time in years, officials say the Golden Spike event in May put the tourism industry in the county on track for its biggest year to date.

In her annual report to county commissioners, Box Elder County Tourism Director Joan Hammer said the collective success of all the events and offerings in the county has created momentum that will last well into the future.

“Box Elder County really had an opportunity to shine,” Hammer said. “We’re going to continue down that path.”

Lee Buschkowsky, interim superintendent at Golden Spike National Historical Park, said visitation at the site was up 73 percent this year including the sesquicentennial weekend, and the site saw an increase of more than 8 percent in visitation on days other than the big event.

Sales at the visitor center’s bookstore increased 48 percent.

He said the site isn’t done for the year, as it is set to host the annual Steam Festival on Dec. 28. A major upgrade to the visitor center is currently in the works, and “it’s going to be quite spectacular when it’s all said and done in a couple of years,” he said.

The Box Elder County Fair is always a big draw, and this year was no exception. The junior livestock auction brought in a record haul of about $1.25 million, and an expansion that more than doubled the seating capacity at the main arena drew record crowds to the Golden Spike Rodeo.

County Auditor Tom Kotter said rodeo ticket sales helped the fair generate a net gain of $25,000.

“It’s the first time it’s been positive since I’ve been here,” Kotter said. “The rodeo had much larger revenue because of the capacity increase.”

The expanded seating at the fairgrounds will end up requiring about $800,000 from the county general fund, well above the $500,000 that was anticipated, but officials expect to recoup those costs and more through increased ticket sales.

“The new bleachers were a hit,” Hammer said. “People loved the reserved seating.”

The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, one of the main tourist draws in the county, saw a modest increase in visitation.

Kathi Stopher, visitor services manager at the refuge, said it saw a small increase from opening more of the refuge to waterfowl hunting, and a steady rise in the number of people coming to observe and photograph the many species of birds found there.

She said the refuge has brought in some new staff and was able to return to full operating hours at this visitor center this year, which is helping to boost the environmental education programs and other public offerings.

Willard Bay State Park was once again a top draw for boating enthusiasts and anglers. Park Manager James Morgan said the park set record highs once again, with more than 517,000 visitors.

“We keep continuing to break all the numbers, the marks we’ve had before,” Morgan said.

He said the park is expanding its offerings with a large pond that will be open to fishing, scuba diving and other non-motorized uses.

Hammer said 2019 will be tough to top, but the future looks bright for tourism in the county. She said partnerships with state tourism groups remain strong, and hotel owners in the county are planning to start a hospitality group to leverage their resources and bring in even more revenue from tourism.

“It’s clean revenue,” Hammer said. “Folks come in, spend their money and go home.”

She said visitors to Utah spent $9.75 billion within its borders in 2018, and the benefits of the revenue extend to all corners of the state, including Box Elder County.

“Each Utah household pays $1,300 in fewer taxes because of the impact that tourists have,” she said.

Tremonton considering new impact fee to pay for roads

As they look for ways to fund the building of new roads to accommodate growth, Tremonton officials are looking into the possibility of adding a transportation fee to the list of impact fees the city charges for new buildings.

Impact fees are one-time charges imposed by local governments to pay for the impact on infrastructure caused by new development. Growth in the form of new homes and businesses requires expansion or enlargement of public facilities to maintain a certain level and quality of public services for all residents, and impact fees are a common way of paying for it.

For a single-family residential building permit, Tremonton currently charges impact fees of about $9,000 per acre. Those include flat fees for water, sewer, parks, fire and police services, as well as a variable fee for storm water services based on lot size.

At its most recent meeting on Dec. 3, the Tremonton City Council discussed adding a transportation impact fee to that list. City Manager Shawn Warnke said the city has never charged such a fee in the past, but a recently completed transportation plan shows that growth will require “a lot” of roads to be built over the next 10 to 20 years.

The council authorized spending up to $8,000 for an engineering firm to determine whether such a fee would be a feasible way to help pay for new roads.

The city will be working with Horrocks Engineering, a firm it has worked with before on transportation studies.

Warnke said a transportation impact fee would likely be somewhere between $600 and $1,500 per equivalent residential unit, depending on the project.

“They essentially will determine the highest fee that can be justified based on our individual projects and the cost of those projects,” he said. “A grocery store would cost more, based on traffic. It depends on specific land uses.”

While Tremonton has never charged an impact fee for transportation, Warnke said many Utah cities already do, “especially as you get deeper into the Wasatch Front.”

Any new impact fee would ultimately have to be enacted through a city ordinance.

Warnke said it’s important to address the city’s transportation infrastructure now, especially with some major developers turning an eye toward Tremonton as they look for new places to build.

Two Cache Valley-based companies, Visionary Homes and Sadler Construction, are gearing up to build large housing developments in the city, and Wasatch Development Group is also working with the city on a downtown apartment project.

“Some larger developments, in order to accommodate growth they want, they need to build where there are facilities,” he said. “You don’t see those going in where the facilities aren’t there to support the growth.”

While Horrocks will focus solely on the transportation issue, Tremonton is also working with two other firms, Zions Public Finance and Jones & Associaties, which are looking at the city’s existing impact fee structure to determine if adjustments might be needed in other areas as well.

Warnke said impact fees alone won’t pay for new roads. He said the funding would have to come from multiple sources, including the city’s general fund, and possibly through higher taxes down the road.

“Sometimes if you’re not growing fast enough, impact fees are not always the best mechanism to fund facilities because you have a short window of time,” he said. “What I see is the city investing in transportation, and fees could help with these future transportation corridors we need.”