West Jordan faces tough decisions on taxes in the next few months, and city officials are hoping residents will help.
Utah's fourth-largest city has been strapped for cash the past few years, leading to shortages in such key areas as public safety and road maintenance. The City Council wants to know if residents wish to leave things as they are or if they're willing to pay more or remove earmarks to fund projects.
First up is a proposal regarding the city's telecommunications and municipal energy taxes. Currently those taxes paid by anyone who uses a phone or energy in the city fund the city's pavement management program. The taxes are set to expire this year which would cost the city roughly $1.7 million to $1.9 million unless the council takes further action.
Mayor Melissa Johnson plans to present a proposal at the council meeting on Wednesday to remove the roads earmark and direct that tax revenue to the city's general fund, which has lost around $3 million in the recession. The money would be available for use on other projects, based on city priorities, Johnson said.
"You shouldn't be paying money on your phone bill to fix the road," Johnson said. "There's no causal link."
Roads are important, Johnson said, but putting the money in the general fund would allow the council to decide what is most important each year. The council could decide to upgrade the city's computer system, for example, which would allow residents to pay utility bills online. The current system is so old, Johnson said, that the manufacturer no longer services it.
But Johnson's proposal is already generating opposition. The telecommunications tax was approved with a pledge that it would pay for road maintenance, said Councilman Ben Southworth, and it would be disingenuous to use it for something else. Southworth originally sponsored the provision that is allowing the tax to expire. To Johnson's credit, he said, she voted against the tax in the first place when she was a member of the council. Southworth proposed allowing the tax to expire to prompt the council to decide whether pavement management which is still underfunded is still a top priority.
"If you do not like where the money is going, either repeal it or let it sunset," Southworth said. "Then muster the courage to face the public and pass it again."
The issue has already lit up the boards on the "WJResidents" Yahoo! group, even though it has yet to be formally proposed to the council. For most it is a transparency issue rather than a complaint about paying the tax, said resident Stephanie Ozenne.
"If you pass something the first time, part of how you get support is by sticking to the promises you make," Ozenne said. "I don't like it when they attach a fee to some particular item and then stick it in the general fund."
Most Salt Lake Valley cities charge a telecommunications tax, and most keep it in their general funds, said Royce Van Tassell, of the Utah Taxpayers Association. The agency is generally against earmarks for everything from zoos to public safety, he said, and in favor of competition.
"All of these things should compete with each other in the general fund, so the most important things are funded," Van Tassell said.
The council must also weigh whether to raise property taxes to fund public safety. The city needs to add 39 officers in the next five years to boost its ratio of officers to residents and decrease per-officer call volumes, said Police Chief Doug Diamond. That proposal seems to have public support, but city officials are asking for input before considering a property tax increase which would be the city's first since 1988.
If residents want to increase public safety funding, the city could consider two options, Johnson said. The city could simply raise the property tax rate, or create a special taxing district similar to a school district that would independently fund public safety. City leaders plan a series of open houses and meetings on the subject, including a "Meet the City" event at 6 p.m. March 7. Residents are also encouraged to call or email their council members to express their opinions.
West Jordan Mayor Melissa Johnson will present a proposal on the city's expiring telecommunications tax to the City Council on Wednesday, 6 p.m., at City Hall, 8000 W. Redwood Road. Public comments are welcome in person and online via the city's interactive agenda at www.wjordan.com. The "Meet the City" event is March 7, 6 to 9 p.m., also at City Hall.