Weber Co. Commission hopefuls Couts, Froerer hammer Ebert on property tax hike

Wednesday , June 20, 2018 - 5:15 AM1 comment

OGDEN —  A controversial 21-percent property tax hike Weber County commissioners approved in late 2016 has come back to haunt James Ebert in his re-election bid.

Both his opponents in the June 26 Republican primary, James Couts and Gage Froerer, have hammered the one-term incumbent on the issue. Scaling back spending instead, they maintain, would have precluded the need for the tax hike, pushed, in large part, to boost the pay of Weber County Sheriff’s Office deputies and other county workers.

“I felt like it was completely inappropriate and unneeded,” said Couts, a land surveyor from Roy. He spoke out against it during public hearings in 2016, ahead of its 2-1 passage on Nov. 29, 2016, and says the hike — which generated an extra $6.85 million for the county in its 2017 budget — figured big in his decision to challenge Ebert.

RELATED: Amid outcry, Weber commissioners approve 21 percent property tax increase

“A tax hike that large shows how out of touch the current commissioners are,” Froerer, a Utah House member from Huntsville forgoing a re-election bid to that body to vie for county commission, said in an email. The decision “showed poor leadership, poor critical policy-decision making ability, and a total disregard for our community members.”

Boosting the wages of county workers wasn’t the problem for the two critics, but rather, the decision to increase taxes to generate the required money.

No Democrats are running for Ebert’s seat, so the winner of next week’s Republican primary should settle the race, barring the unexpected.

Ebert, for his part, defended the vote. He and Commissioner Matt Bell, no longer on the body, voted for the tax hike, while Commissioner Kerry Gibson, who stepped down from the commission earlier this month, voted against it.

The wages of deputies and other county employees lagged behind pay levels elsewhere, prompting the county to continually lose workers to other employers, Ebert said. Commissioners, moreover, had been searching for areas to cut back spending, he said, making headway via money-saving changes in certain benefits provisions for employees and in other areas.

The decision to boost property taxes was tough, “but it was made with a tremendous amount of thought,” Ebert said.

RELATED: Weber Co. Commission hopefuls spar on taxes, business growth, spending

RELATED: Weber Co. Commission hopeful Froerer rebuffs questions, criticism in campaign

The county had not raised taxes in the prior 12 years, Ebert said, and too many spending cuts could have had a devastating impact. “At some point, you start to cut into critical services,” he said.

Even so, after debate commenced about the initial property tax hike proposal, 25 percent, commissioners found additional areas to scale back county spending, reducing the increase to 21 percent, he noted.

“It’s easy for them to sit back and politically cast a stone,” Ebert said, referencing his opponents’ criticism. But they haven’t put any realistic proposals forward to trim spending.

Of the $6.85 million the tax hike generated, nearly $5.29 million went toward employees’ pay hikes and $1.56 million went for capital projects, according to county figures. Of the $5.29 million for wages, $3.37 million went to the sheriff’s office employees.

‘HIJACKED MY MESSAGE’

Couts said he reviewed the 2017 county spending plan when officials were still contemplating the hike they ultimately approved, identifying around $1 million in possible cuts after a cursory look. In a total budget of around $180 million, he finds it hard to believe more places to trim spending could not have been found.

“I think the Weber County residents want someone who is against taxes,” Couts said. He vows never to vote for tax hikes impacting residents here if elected commissioner and will push for county budget cuts to help bring proper tax spending to 2016 levels.

He doesn’t limit his criticism to Ebert. Couts views Froerer’s focus on the issue with skepticism.

“To be quite frank, I believe Rep. Froerer has completely hijacked my message,” he said. He thinks Froerer’s interest in the issue stems mainly from hopes of tapping into anti-tax voter sentiment.

Froerer disputed Couts’ account. Indeed, when he announced plans to run for commission last February, he said opposition to the 2016 tax hike factored in his decision. He spoke out about it last fall as well, Froerer said.

He offered few specific areas to make spending cuts but said he would use the same sort of budget review process he has followed in analyzing the state’s annual spending plans as a Utah House member.

“We cut about 10 percent out of the state budget in 2009 and made government more accountable to the public. I believe we can do the same in Weber County,” Froerer said. Cutting contracts county commissioners have sought with private consultants to aid with things like economic development, another point of criticism aimed at Ebert, “is a start.”

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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