Amy Roberts: In a windfall that turns into a shortfall, no one takes the fall
A few years ago, my sister won the lottery. Well, she enjoyed 30 minutes of believing she’d won $1 million.
A friend gave her a lottery ticket as a Christmas gift and Heather promptly scratched away, revealing the matching numbers. She immediately called my parents, screaming and celebrating. They were both skeptical, but she was adamant and texted a photo as proof. She told them she was going to drive to the Nebraska state lottery office immediately. My dad insisted he’d pick her up and take her. She was far too wound up to drive and also the type of person who wouldn’t think twice about heading home with a trunk full of cash.
While my sister waited for my dad to arrive, she called to tell me the good news. She’d already spent a good portion of the money in her head. All our houses would be paid off, I was assured I’d no longer have to worry about my mortgage. There would be a luxury vacation, and definitely a new car. Maybe a Land Rover, or a Porsche. She’d have to test drive them both. Her favorite charities would all get a bump. And she was most certainly quitting her job.
When she and my dad arrived at the state lottery office, Heather’s brief trip to a different social status abruptly ended. The ticket was a gag gift. On the backside it noted the funds could only be paid by Santa Claus and the ticket had to be validated by the Tooth Fairy. Her embarrassment over this blunder followed her to her grave. If only she’d flipped the ticket over first!
Luckily, the nonexistent money she’d spent was only in her mind. Back here in Utah, our neighbors in Wasatch County aren’t so fortunate. Government officials didn’t verify their windfall and actually did spend a large wad of imaginary money, and now it looks like taxpayers will have to make up for what can only be described as a clerical error for the accounting books.
Earlier this year, a modest home situated on two acres of land, built in 1978 and offering less than 1,600 square feet, was mistakenly valued for almost $1 billion. The real taxable value was just over $300,000. Wasatch County assessor Maureen Griffiths hypothesized the typo might be the result of an employee dropping a phone on the keyboard while entering data. No one really knows how it happened. But what did happen is a lot of spending.
The billion-dollar valuation resulted in a belief there would be roughly $6 million extra in the budget. The money was quickly divvied up, with the majority of it earmarked for the Wasatch County School District, which is now about $4.4 million in the red. The county has a $1 million deficit. The parks, water, and fire departments round out the rest of those getting the short end of the revenue shortfall straw.
In my line of work, typos are an occupational inevitability. But even in a small-town paper, there’s a system set up to catch them. And some weeks the copy editor really earns his keep. So you’d think when the stakes are as high as annual budgets for critical county services, someone might notice a few too many zeros on a property tax bill. But it went undetected for several months. The error was likely made in May when the assessor’s office was preparing tax rolls. But it wasn’t until months later — after the tax rate was certified by the Utah State Tax Commission — that anyone spotted the mistake.
Mike Davis, the county manager, first learned about it last month when a citizen requested a property tax list and reported that something didn’t look quite right. I can only imagine how that conversation went. “Well, you see, Mike, you need to carry the one…”
Shortly after this mathematical enlightenment, the County Council called an emergency meeting, which began with Council Chairman Danny Goode bowing his head and saying, “Dear God, help us all.”
In short, a Republican-controlled county government spent a bunch of money it didn’t have, then told residents to expect tax increases and asked God to intervene.
But at least he didn’t ask Santa Claus for the money or name the Tooth Fairy the next assessor.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.
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