This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Imagine your 2017 property tax bill shows a $200 increase over last year, even though the fair market value of your home has not increased. You learn your neighbor convinced the taxing authority to value his home not at fair market value, as yours was, but at the neighbor's cost less 20 percent. That reduced his bill by $1,000. But government service costs haven't dropped, so your and your neighbors' tax bills were each increased to make up the difference.
Now imagine you call your county assessor to complain. She says sorry, but nobody can contest how your neighbor's valuation was handled or the disproportionate shift of the tax burden from him to you. Determined to "vote those tax assessment bums out of office"? You can't. The people who made the decision are unelected state officials who acted at the direct instruction of the Utah Legislature.
So goes the story with centrally assessed properties in Utah. Although we are a proud "Truth in Taxation" state, this is one aspect of Utah's property tax system that occurs primarily behind closed doors and is largely insulated from review by the public or the courts.
That is the case even when the Legislature, as it did this year in SB157, enacts a process that requires one particular class of taxpayers in this case, the airline industry to be valued differently (and we believe more favorably) than anyone else, and thus to substantially shift its tax burden onto all other taxpayers. They, like your neighbor above, now get valued not at "fair market," but at cost less 20 percent; you and the other non-airline taxpayers get to shoulder the difference.
Many taxpayers are not fully aware that a key factor in their property tax bills the annual certified tax rate is not set by their locally elected assessors at all. Instead, the annual certified rate is set by the state of Utah through the Utah State Tax Commission. That certified tax rate is highly dependent on taxable values calculated by the commission on "centrally assessed" properties, which include some of the most economically dominant businesses in the State of Utah including mining properties, airlines and wireless carriers, among others.
Any decrease in taxable value for those centrally assessed taxpayers (read: lower taxes) translates directly into an increase in tax rates for you and all other taxpayers in the state (read: higher taxes). And all that can happen without you or your county representatives having any ability to challenge it, especially after the Legislature in 2015 (in SB165) drastically limited counties' ability to object to valuations of centrally assessed properties on their residents' behalf.
That is unfair. It also violates the Utah State Constitution. The Constitution explicitly instructs, "[s]o that each person and corporation pays a tax in proportion to the fair market value of his, her, or its tangible property," all tangible property in the State of Utah must be "assessed at a uniform and equal rate in proportion to its fair market value" and it must be "taxed at a uniform and equal rate." Utah Const. Art. VIII, § 2(1).
A system that allows one class of taxpayer to be valued and taxed at well below market value, while others make up the difference with no ability to safeguard their own interests, is neither "uniform" nor "proportional." It certainly is not "equal."
Utah's rich constitutional history reflects a deep commitment to protecting the rights of individuals from the overreach of government. Taxation of real property is one of the few uniform sources of revenue. It is, however, a burden on our citizens, which means it requires careful adherence to the constitutional mandates of uniformity and equality. Fairness and our state Constitution require that property taxes be imposed consistent with those principles, not based on preferential treatment for the lucky few at the literal expense of the unlucky many.
Signed, Salt Lake County Council Member Steve DeBry, Weber County Commissioners James Ebert, Kerry Gibson and Jim Harvey, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.