Smithfield City proposed tax increase; Residents say not the right time

In a night where there was great respect expressed for the members of the Smithfield Mayor and City Council Members, a civilized and impassioned plea from residents sent a message to the council that now is not the time for a proposed 19.6% property tax increase. The council then responded with a well organized and educational presentation on the nature of the general fund, and a promise to look for areas of further cuts before making the deciding vote.

The Smithfield City Council began their scheduled meeting at 6:00 p.m. Wednesday evening, discussing community concerns over existing and planned storm drainage systems throughout the city. Also on the pre-hearing agenda was a heartfelt expression of gratitude by Bryce King, director of the Smithfield Recreation Center. King will be leaving Smithfield City in the next few weeks as he has taken a new position with Hurricane City as the Recreation Department director.

Residents began filing in as the council concluded their preliminary business, as the 7:00 p.m. appointed hour for the hearing began. With nearly a full house, a short introduction to the procedures of the public hearing was presented by Mayor Darrell Simmons. Mayor Simmons then began calling residents to the podium to express their opinions and concerns over the impending vote to raise property taxes.

Gordon Churchill started the procession of residents who wished to be heard. Churchill’s statement became a central theme of the night when he pointed out the current state of the finances of the federal government, people out of work, and families losing their homes. Churchill indicated that the country, city and people need time to adjust to the current state of things. “I just don’t think it is the right time,” stated Churchill.

Only three residents stood up in favor of the proposed tax increase. One of those was Richard Jewkes who said he did not envy the position the council was in, but expressed his love for Smithfield City. Jewkes said he was in favor of the increase, “to continue the services the city provides.” Local business owner Scott Gibbons, and Marilee Wells also expressed appreciation for the council and the tough situation they find themselves in, and expressed support for the increase.

The string of residents that made their way to the podium continued unfettered by the council who were more than willing and gracious in listening to the opinions of the city dwellers. Some residents expressed heartfelt opinions against the proposal, while one or two were slightly animated; overall however, the proceedings were very civil and respectful.

Former City Council member and long-time resident George Jepson expressed his opposition to the proposal for all senior citizens living on a fixed income. Jepson said, “No matter how you vote you will all still be my friends, but Smithfield City has plenty of money to meet their needs.” Jepson cited a police department budget of more than $750,000, up from the $200,000 budget of 10 years ago. Jepson said the city needed to live within its means like the residents do, and to look for other areas where cuts could be made.

An 86 year old resident, Gilbert Phillips, cited a story he read about the perils of individuals who count on their overtime to meet their expenses, and then end up losing their homes when the overtime goes away. Phillips said, “I think Smithfield City may be living on their overtime.”

Linda Gittens offered one of the more spirited opinions to the council. With a prepared script in hand Gittens stated, “The residents who elected you are looking for leadership. We expect our elected officials to come back with a new budget and live within its means.” Gittens expressed that the idea of having a public hearing was a good, and insinuated that there could be ramifications for the council if they voted in favor of the proposed taxes. Gittens said, “don’t be surprised if a grass roots campaign is organized to make sure no incumbent that votes for this increase is re-elected.” Gittens referred to electronic social media like Facebook that could be used to get the message out.

Jeff Gittens lamented, “Property tax is an overused and antiquated means of generating revenues.” Gittens, a local farmer, said that when milk prices have been down they have sold non-essential items, laid off employees, and even salvaged scrap metal from around their property to make ends meet. Referring to the proposed increase, Gittens counseled city administrators to, “think about where this money comes from . . .iImposing this tax on us now is like the Pharaoh of Egypt asking the people of Israel to make more bricks with no straw.” Gittens asked the council to be patient and reiterated, “now is not the time.”

Robert Gerber, a 35 year resident of Smithfield, described the 19.6% increase coming all at one time as “sticker shock.” Gerber mentioned that his property evaluation had shown that his property value went down yet his taxes will actually increase with the proposed tax hike.

Tom Brillinsower echoed Mr. Gerber’s idea of sticker shock saying, “We have a timing issue, with the nation in the state it is. It might be easier to swallow if it went up with inflation. It hasn’t gone up for a few years. With what has happened in our nation, it is sticker shock to have it all at one time. It’s just bad timing.”

And so the night proceeded in this fashion, and the theme of the evening went much the same for over two and a half hours, as council members patiently listened to the residents of Smithfield. Those speaking were uninterrupted by the council in their ability to express their sentiments about the proposed property tax increase. Only once did the Mayor intervene to reign in a resident who got off topic on a mild rant about the services offered by the Smithfield Police Department. Mayor Simmons politely reminded the resident that the public hearing was about the proposed tax increase and not about the Police Department. The new city office building and police building were current themes of perceived city excessive spending throughout the night.

On the heels of an extremely respectful expression of mild support and lots of disfavor with the proposed tax increase, the Mayor took a bit of time to explain the current financial situation of the city before turning time over to city manager, James Glass, to explain what money comprises the general fund, for which the increase will be used to fill a shortfall of funds. Mayor Simmons explained that the general fund experienced a $350,000 shortfall, and that the city had trimmed and cut the budget by $250,000, including $30,000 from the police department as well as making cuts to programs such as Health Days, which they wish they didn’t have to do. With growing expectations for cities to do more with less, Mayor Simmons explained that they have 10 more miles of roads to plow along with other additional expenses.

Mayor Simmons related to the residents that he, like many, are on a fixed income, and when his income went down 10%, and then he was subsequently forced to pay the full cost of his own health insurance costs of over $1,000 per month, Simmons stated, “I know where you are coming from. After 911 when the stock market crashed like you my 401K turned into an 01K. I’ve heard you and understand what you are saying.”

In relation to the “sticker shock” being felt over the amount of the percentage of the increase Mayor Simmons commented that no one seemed to complain when the Cache County School District recently increased their tax by 8%, but that increase meant an annual increase to Simmons’ household of $50. The proposed Smithfield City property tax increase of 19.6%, on an average home valued around $180,000 would be about half that at $26 per year.

In anticipation of the comments that were made the Mayor was prepared by having city manager James Glass ready with graphs and spreadsheets that showed where the money raised by the tax increase would go. The explanation began with a discussion about how the buildings such as the new city office building and police building come from restricted capital improvement accounts that are earmarked for construction projects, improvements, and equipment purchases, and cannot be moved in and out of the general fund. Glass explained how the city had pursued refinancing strategies to obtain the most favorable interest rates available to the city and how these efforts had resulted in a great deal of savings to the city. Money raised for the capital improvement fund via grants, and loans were used to pay off the bond on the Fire Station early, resulting in a reduction of monthly payments made by the city of $47,000 per month. Paying off this debt offset the lion’s share of the cost of the new Police Building resulting in a net increase in monthly payments by the city of just $2,000 per month.

The money raised by the proposed tax increase will go towards the services offered by the city. Increases mandated by the State Legislature include payments of salaries and benefits for the city judge. Items not covered by the General Fund include support for the golf course which is largely self sufficient, and which works to repay any funds to the city that they receive in the rare few years when there is a shortfall in their income. The General Fund does go to subsidize public works, streets, the library, parks, and similar services. The city did state that they do subsidize the recreation center to offset costs that would put things like soccer programs and similar activities out of the reach of most kids.

As the public hearing was brought to a close the council was given time to discuss their feelings on how to proceed and whether to hold an immediate vote on the proposed increase, or to temporarily table the vote to allow more time to discuss other options.

Council member Kris Monson said, “I think there are things we can look at cutting but I worry that the citizens won’t be happy if we did cut them. The areas we would have to look at cutting are things like the senior center, and support for the library.” Monson said she was not opposed to going back and taking a look to see if there were areas where they could make cuts.

Council members Michael Oliverson and Brent Buttars also stated that they would be willing to look for areas that they could make cuts. Buttars stated, “This increase deals with the General Fund which funds many of our services. The biggest complaints we get relate to our services.”

Council member Barbara Kent said that she was not opposed to taking another look but reminded residents, “We the people have to represent the public and those people include those that are not here tonight. We have letters and emails requesting sidewalks, road improvements, and other items that this fund pays for, and we have a duty to represent them also.”

City Recorder, Dean Clegg reported that the budget was due to the state thirty days from Wednesday night’s meeting so the council would need to make a decision soon so that final budget numbers could be compiled and submitted.

A unanimous decision was made to postpone the vote until after a budget meeting could be held to reassess whether or not further cuts could be made. The meeting was scheduled for next Wednesday the 17th of August, at 6:00 p.m. at the Senior Center. The council will look over the budget and see if there are other cuts that can be made. This generally entails going line by line to see if there are any areas where the city can make some cuts. Mayor Simmons invited everyone at the meeting on Wednesday to attend next week’s meeting to see what goes into the budgeting process and how decisions are made.

After the hearing Mayor Simmons said he was pleased with how the meeting went commenting, “First of all I’m very appreciative of the participation, I’m glad the people came with good input, there was not a lot of ranting and raving and repetitive discussion. I thought it just went real well, I’m glad the citizens came and I hope they went away with the understanding though, that the best place to discuss this is in the actual budget meetings themselves. I encourage that, and they get to do what we do and go line by line and say what about this what about that.”

Mayor Simmons talking of the presentation by the city manager aimed at educating and informing the public of how the money is allocated and used said, “Communication is always the key to government when working with the people. We didn’t restrict anybody on their time; we let them speak their feelings, we then after that we gave a presentation. We didn’t try to stifle their opinions by giving the presentation first; we wanted to do that after so there could be some clarification. I think some of them could sense that we really are trying to be as fiscally responsible as possible, and as frugal as we can to keep the city at one of the most affordable cities to live in, in the entire state.”

When asked if he thought the city would have to make cuts to programs Simmons said, “We may have to minimize some. We may have to minimize what the city puts into subsidizing the rec. center, or the library, or the cemetery or other areas that we are going to look at between now and next week. However, I would tell you that some of those minimization s probably won’t have that big of an effect on this, I sense there will still have to be a tax increase. Otherwise we will have to completely eliminate some things. I would hope we wouldn’t have to, I’d hate to see us eliminate some of the services we are giving which is what the property taxes pay for.”