PROVO — A sales tax hike that would raise $22 million for transportation projects in Utah County has officially come back from the dead.
Utah County voters shot it down in 2015, largely due to distrust of the Utah Transit Authority. But thanks to a sweeping transportation bill passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year that restructured UTA, county leaders were given the power to put it back on the ballot again — or enact it themselves.
Tuesday, the Utah County Commission voted to enact.
Up until Tuesday's vote, Utah County was the only county along the Wasatch Front to not impose the tax.
Starting April 1, Utah County shoppers will start paying an extra penny for every $4 spent on taxable goods, not including food. The 0.25 percent sales tax hike is projected to generate an additional $22 million per year for transit and road projects.
Utah County will get 100 percent of the new revenue up until July 1 next year, after which the tax money will be split 20 percent to Utah County, 40 percent to cities and 40 percent to UTA.
The vote came after Utah County leaders wrestled with the tax hike for months. At first, commissioners were reluctant to override voters' 2015 decision without more control over how UTA will spend county tax dollars, then they missed a deadline to place it on this year's ballot again after county and UTA officials didn't finalize an interlocal agreement in time.
A service agreement to give the county more control of UTA's share of the money — about $8.8 million a year — still hadn't been finalized before Tuesday's vote. That, and voters' 2015 rejection, was why Commissioner Bill Lee cast the only vote against the tax hike Tuesday.
"I'm not voting no because we don't need road funding," Lee said. "I'm voting no because I've heard from the people for a long time on this, and it still rings in my ears."
Lee acknowledged efforts to make the tax more "palatable" by adding more county control over the money, but he said "the t's are not crossed and the i's are not dotted" yet without the new UTA board's signature on the service agreement.
But for commission Chairman Nathan Ivie and Commissioner Greg Graves, commitments from new UTA board members — and Herbert's acceptance of Utah and Tooele County's compromise appointee to the new UTA board, Kent Millington, just the day before — was enough to throw their support behind the tax to start a new stream of revenue for Utah County roads and transit.
Later Tuesday, Utah County commissioners voted to officially drop their lawsuit against the governor after he rejected two previous names commissioners submitted for him to appoint to the new UTA board.
Prior to Tuesday's vote, the commissioners spent months drafting the interlocal agreement with UTA that stipulates the agency's portion of the tax revenue will be used to pay off debt on local UTA projects so it could save on interest and free up more money for road projects.
"A lot of times, we can't change what we've been given, but we can take what we've been given and try to make it the best we can," Ivie said.
"We've been given a transit partner who has been fiscally very poorly managed," Ivie added, referring to UTA's scandal-tainted past. "Because of the interlocal agreement we have passed and signed, we have the opportunity to save about $74 million in interest from now until the year 2030. That's a huge, huge savings. That frees up enormous amounts of money for us to go ahead and address some needs."
Ivie also threw his support behind the tax after proposing a sunset clause that would "force" a future County Commission to re-evaluate the tax by the end of 2028.
Graves, who has been pushing the imposition of the tax since earlier this year, said Utah and Tooele counties' appointee won't be a "rubber stamp" trustee and "that should give everybody a lot of comfort."
"With Kent Millington, if we tell him we need a service level agreement by Jan. 31, I guarantee you, you'll have a service level agreement by Jan. 31," Graves said.
Beth Holbrook, one of UTA's newly appointed trustees, promised commissioners Tuesday she would work with Millington to hash out the service agreement.
"I want you to know I will work really hard and work with Kent really hard to make sure that the service agreement we're working on right now will be enacted and adhered to," Holbrook said.
Many Utah County mayors and city councils also issued resolutions in support of the tax hike ahead of the commissioners' vote Tuesday.
"(Transportation) is the No. 1 issue facing the county, facing the cities, facing the residents," Orem Mayor Richard Brunst told commissioners. "Please enact this. Please move forward. I don't want the county to be the only one that is not funded in this."31 comments on this story
The transportation tax wasn't the only tax increase Utah County leaders were considering this year. Commissioners were also looking at raising property taxes but last week — after a series of public meetings where residents turned out in droves to oppose the tax — voted to delay a possible tax hike until at least next year.
Tuesday, the Utah County Commission finalized its $88 million 2019 budget without a property tax hike. The transportation sales tax hike's new revenue won't start being collected until April, after which county leaders will factor the new revenue into the budget.