Cedar Highlands residents to vote on whether to stay an incorporated town or go back to HOA

Sign welcoming visitors to the mountain community of Cedar Highlands, Utah, Nov. 9, 2017 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — Cedar Highlands residents will soon vote on whether their town should remain a municipality or be formally disincorporated.

Iron County Clerk Jon Whittaker said mail-in ballots will be sent out starting early this week to the town’s 101 registered active voters. They’ll have approximately three weeks to mark their choice and return their ballots by mail before the May 12 deadline.

If a majority of voters opt for disincorporation, the mountain community of Cedar Highlands would revert to its former status as an unincorporated portion of Iron County, operating under its own homeowners association (HOA). The mayor and Town Council’s municipal powers would cease, and a 5th District Court judge would oversee a “winding down” transition period. 

Cedar Highlands Mayor Jim Byler is among those behind the effort to disincorporate, having helped spearhead a petition that circulated among town residents earlier this year before being formally submitted to the Iron County Clerk in mid-February. 

Just 17 signatures were required to generate a vote on the issue, based on the 65 Cedar Highlands residents who cast ballots in the November 2019 general election. The petition to put the disincorporation question to a vote ended up with a total of 46 signatures, as verified by the county clerk.

Cedar Highlands Mayor Jim Byler looks at a document during Town Council meeting, Cedar City, Utah, Aug. 1, 2019 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“That’s a pretty clear indication that people are ready to move on from the town and put an end to it,” Byler told Cedar City News.

Byler was appointed the town’s mayor last July, shortly after the abrupt resignation of former Mayor Steven Swann, who cited an inability to work with the Town Council as a primary reason for his stepping down. Swann, who had served as mayor since Cedar Highlands was first incorporated in January 2018, was the chief figure in the town’s creation.

In a recent telephone interview, Byler told Cedar City News there are three main reasons he believes the town should disincorporate.

The first and foremost reason, Byler said, is money.

“It’s not financially sustainable without any commercial revenue,” Byler said. “Everything, every single thing we do, is pretty much predicated on property taxes with no commercial revenue. It’s not financially viable.”

Byler said the town’s share of road and sales taxes in 2018 and 2019 were simply not sufficient to cover its costs.

“The money that we collected was nowhere near enough to offset just the administrative costs of being a town,” he said.

The second reason outlined by Byler is what he sees as a lack of sufficient civic participation, as evidenced by recent and current vacancies on the Planning Commission and Town Council.

“We simply do not have enough people willing to step up and do the work that needs to be done,” he said. “The last two council positions we have had vacant, nobody put in for. We had to beg people to put their name in.” 

“There’s just not enough people,” Byler added. “And what’s ironic is, it’s the people like myself and the council members that are doing all the work who don’t believe the town is viable and sustainable.”

However, current Town Council member Simon Saw told Cedar City News he favors keeping the town’s municipal status intact and he knows of others who would willingly serve. 

Cedar Highlands Town Council members meet to interview applicants for mayor, Cedar City, Utah, July 17, 2019 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“I personally know several individuals who are able and ready to serve the people and keep their oath to the town,” said Saw, the only current Town Council member whose name is not on the petition to disincorporate. 

Yet, since former council member Paul Starks resigned earlier this year shortly after being appointed, there has been one vacant seat on the five-member Town Council. The council includes five people: four members and the mayor, all of whom vote as one body. 

Mayor Byler’s third reason for disbanding the town is that he believes the municipality was created using false assumptions regarding taxes and budgets.

“People need to accept the fact that there were too many, I’ll say, misrepresentations that were used to form the town that just did not turn out to be true,” he said. “For instance, the town was formed with the promise that there would be no increase in property taxes.”

Not only did property taxes go up, Cedar Highlands residents currently have the highest property tax rate in all of Iron County, Byler said. 

That assertion is supported by the 2019 property tax rate figures provided by the Utah State Tax Commission, which show a municipal property tax rate of 0.004402 for Cedar Highlands. In comparison, Cedar City’s municipal rate is 0.002494 and Brian Head’s is 0.003964.

“So, this idea that there’ll be no property tax increase and then the first budget that was submitted would have raised property taxes by many thousands of dollars shows that it was a fallacy from the beginning, if you can’t run the town without a massive increase in property taxes,” Byler said.

Promised road grant funds also never materialized, Byler added.

The mountain community of Cedar Highlands, Utah, Nov. 9, 2017 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“Every road proposal that was presented in the forming of the town and during the first year and a half of the town showed hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money,” Byler said. “That grant money does not exist. There is no road grant money available. We verified that through every level of the government up to the lieutenant governor’s office. No one was going to give Cedar Highlands $700,000 in grant money to build a road. It never happened. It was never applied for. It never existed.”

Nevertheless, proponents of keeping the town’s municipal status intact point out that a homeowners association, if so inclined, could also raise its fees by as much as 15% per year. Also, because it is a private entity, the HOA lacks the political oversight and liability protections afforded to a municipality.

“Right now, about 99 citizen voter residents determine what happens in this community through their vote,” states an anonymous private email recently sent to Cedar Highlands residents highlighting the benefits of remaining incorporated. Town Council member Saw forwarded a copy of that notice to Cedar City News.

“In contrast, the HOA is governed by groups of landowners that own large and small groups of properties,” the notice states. “And most of them don’t live in our community year-round and they are less interested and concerned than a resident homeowner, who lives here all the time.”

“The issue of money is moot because local leaders can change that up or down anytime,” the email adds. “A town can run on as little or as much as the community dictates. It depends on leadership, community involvement and the level of services the community wants or needs.”

One thing that both supporters and detractors of the town’s disincorporation appear to agree on is the importance of each individual vote in the upcoming election in deciding the future of the community.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, Byler says his own days as a mayor are coming to an end.

“I respect whatever the voters do, but I will not be able to continue as mayor,” Byler said, noting that much of his attention of late has been devoted to helping out with the medical needs of his adult son, who lives out of state and is battling cancer.

Byler said he believes a sizable majority of residents want to dissolve the town and he expects that to be reflected in the upcoming vote.

“I expect the vote to be overwhelming to disincorporate the town,” Byler said. “If, for some reason, people vote to keep the town, then those people would have to step up and assume the positions and spend the time and money to run the town. I don’t see that happening.”

Saw, on the other hand, says he remains hopeful the town’s residents will see the value of staying incorporated.

“You can’t run a town, or a business, or anything in life without problems,” Saw said. “There will always be problems. But if you don’t want to do the job, you know, you step down. You don’t make choices for the rest of the whole city just because you think it’s difficult to do your job. You take responsibility. You step down, and somebody else can take the job that’s willing and able and to do it and defend it.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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