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County budget allows for salary increases of most elected officials; Property values increase, creating more revenue

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Morgan social media was abuzz two weeks ago, gathering more than 300 comments centered on the Morgan County Council voting themselves a fourfold salary increase.  But what many commenters missed, say council members, is the multiple budget meetings and debate that preceded the salary increase that was not only for them, but for most other elected officials across the board.

“The council took the budget extremely serious.  We always do,” said Councilman Robert Kilmer.  “We did not make decisions lightly.  We battled for months, and it got heated.  People felt strongly about these increases.  They worked hard on this budget, going through it line by line, examining each.”

While council members will see their wages go up, five other elected officials are on the rise as well. The largest increases were for the attorney and sheriff, Council Chairman Tina Cannon said.

County Attorney Jann L. Farris’s annual salary for 2017 not including benefits will increase $10,404 to $105,463; Sheriff Blaine Breshears’s will increase $5,089 to $75,082; Clerk Auditor Stacy Netz Clark’s will increase $3,452 to $62,908; Treasurer Bonnie B. Thomson’s will increase $899 to $56,197; and Recorder Brenda D. Nelson’s will increase $306 to $56,197.  Assessor Gwen D. Rich’s salary will stay the same compared to her 2016 salary of $56,297.  Last year, all elected officials got salary increases, except for county council members, who haven’t seen a raise since 2005.

This year’s increases were built into the county’s $7.8 million 2017 budget from the beginning, Kilmer said.  While most departments cut expenditures in their 2017 budget, to the tune of a $350,000 overall, more money flowed into county coffers in 2016 compared to past years, Kilmer said.

Basically, it boils down to two issues: there are more houses to tax, and homes throughout the county are worth more now than they were a year ago.  In 2015, all property in Morgan County was worth a total of $794 million.  In 2016, this figure jumped to $882 million.  This $87 million increase in property tax value throughout Morgan means the county collected more in tax revenue.

While property taxes are bringing in more revenue, the county council isn’t raising the tax rate.  In fact, Councilman Ned Mecham said in the six years he has been on the council, he doesn’t recall the council raising the tax rate at all—just keeping it the same or even lowering it, as they did for this year’s budget in June of 2016.  In 2015, the tax rate was 0.002375.  In 2016, it was lower at 0.002248.

Even though the county may not be increasing their tax rate, that does not mean that residents are seeing a lower tax bill each year.  Other entities such as the school district and city set their own tax rates, and many residents may be paying more each year simply because the value of their home is increasing.

Those valuation increases helped cushion the $548,000 increase for 2017’s budget compared to the county’s 2016 budget.  Kilmer said in past years, the county’s budget has grown about $199,000, which has been financed by increased revenues.

The 2017 budget will allow the sheriff to hire an additional deputy.  “The caseload in the sheriff’s department was enough to justify an additional officer,” Kilmer said.  “The officer will help with coverage in peak times.”

The department had six regular deputies, one detective, two sergeants, one chief deputy, and the sheriff.  Now, the number of deputies will increase from 10 to 11.

“Outside of salary increases, most departments did not increase their budgets at all,” Kilmer said.  “A good deal cut their budgets by operating more efficiently and looking for other ways to do business.  We looked into each department.  We were able to really dig deep.  The department heads were good to help us look, and we were able to make changes to help the county be more efficient.”

Cuts include reducing three full-time positions to part-time ones including a justice court clerk due to council recommendation and discussion with the newly appointed judge; a recorder’s office position due to the council’s perception of decreased work load; and a paralegal position in the county attorney’s office based on the attorney’s submitted budget.

Another cut equaled $90,000 when council members decided that the county’s grant match for airport projects could be in-kind volunteer labor instead of cold, hard cash.  About $46,000 was lopped off the 2017 budget due to a reduction in the county’s contract with the state for wild fire.  Another $28,000 in cuts came from the Community Development Department.

Kilmer hopes to cut future budgets by encouraging departments to provide more of their services online, which would help budgets absorb the increase in services anticipated due to growth.

Other county employees’ salaries may also be set to increase, following completion of a current third-party study attempting to bring Morgan’s salaries in line with other counties’, Kilmer said.

These and the other elected officials’ pay changes are directly tied to Morgan’s recent change in classification as determined by the state and guided by population increases.

In 2016, the Lt. Governor’s office informed Morgan County that its growth in population would result in a change in county classification. No longer a fifth class county, Morgan County is now a fourth class county.

By splitting the state’s 29 counties into classifications, “the legislature is able to easily tailor legislation directed to counties based on population,” according to the Utah Association of Counties.  “Virtually every legislation session, there will be legislation passed that treats counties differently based on classification; whether it be more stringent regulations for first and second class counties (who–the reasoning goes–has the population, the tax base and the infrastructure to meet those regulations) or additional economic resources to fourth, fifth and sixth class counties.”

While Kilmer said he doesn’t necessarily agree with the amount council members’ pay will increase, he supports the final “finished product,” the 2017 budget.

“I personally support the end product,” Kilmer said.  “At the end of the day, the budget is something we can proud of because of our efforts.”

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