A long-awaited bill from Rep. Casey Snider to keep Cache County’s classification more rural-based passed in the House and Senate’s committee before going to the full Senate next week.
“It’s a fairly significant deal for us in Cache Valley, because we’ve basically passed a threshold moving from a county of the third class to the county of a second class,” Snider said at the local Legislative Town Hall on Thursday.
After concerns were raised in the 2020 Legislative Session, reclassifications were paused for analysis.
“If that change had taken place, there’d be a pretty significant cost to both the community and the county,” Snider said, “and a fundamental change of how our county relates to the state government and what programs are available to us.”
There are six classifications for counties in Utah, determined by population size, with Salt Lake County as the only one designated “first class.”
As state code currently dictates, a county with a population of 125,000 people would be bumped up to the second class. As of the 2019 census data, Cache County has an estimated population of 128,289 people.
Cache County has nearly twice the population of the next-highest populated county of the third class (Tooele, whose population was about 72,259 in 2019), yet only trails the lowest-populated county of the second class (Washington County) by about 50,000 people.
Snider’s bill, H.B. 19, would raise the third class’s cap to 175,000, giving the county more time to prepare for the changes that would be required with a new classification.
In the virtual event streamed on Facebook on Thursday, Snider credited former Rep. Val Potter with spearheading the town hall last year before passing it on. Potter told The Herald Journal on Friday he first became aware of the issue when talking to former Cache County Executive Craig Buttars before the 2019 Legislative Session.
“Basically, the expense of running the county would go up significantly by becoming a second-class county,” he said. “I’m not saying it snuck up on Cache County, but the fact that we were suddenly a second-class county in classification would require us to do some things that we didn’t feel we were ready to do, nor should we have to afford it at this stage.”
Potter had been pushing for classification changes during the 2020 Legislative Session, but the matter was sent to an interim committee to research how much of an impact moving up in classification has on a county.
It wasn’t given priority due to the pandemic, and a solution was not reached.
“When they got into it, they saw that there were just so many areas in the state code that were assigned to different county classifications — it was something like 2,500 different laws they estimated would come into play there with that change (in classification),” Buttars said. “There were zoning issues and different funding issues that put a bigger burden on the county of the second class.”
For example, more staff are needed to handle the changes in growth and infrastructure — things that those running for Buttars’ old position have cited as priorities in the county for the coming years.
“As a county, we tried to operate as lean as we could and the tax burden that those in the county have is one of the lowest in the state,” Buttars said. “It seems like the last two or three years where we held the tax rate, we saw enough new growth to be able to take on a lot of the budget demands that we were seeing, so we were able to keep up with some of those demands.”
Though employees of the county were efficient in working with what they had, Buttars said the growth the county is seeing will naturally lead to a need for more employees — something that the county is already strapped on, as can be seen in the assessor’s office.
“We’ve had an open position in that office for a long time, but the salary there doesn’t attract new applicants,” he said. “By the time you bring a new applicant in and you spend two or three years to train them, get them certified, it’s a big expense.”
In 2018, after Washington County moved up in classification, its commissioner, Dean Cox, told The Herald Journal he felt becoming a second-class county was “all in all … a good thing” because it meant the county carried “more clout.”
Buttars argued the costs outweigh the benefits, at this point, but said the continuation of natural growth in the county will eventually mean local government will need to grow to keep up.
Snider’s bill will be the eighth heard on the Senate’s Second-Read list, but the fourth to come out of the House of Representatives.