The recently released budget for Salt Lake County proposes a 17.5 percent property tax increase, causing some people and institutions to cry foul. The Utah Taxpayers Association and the Deseret News Editorial Board have questioned the timing of the announcement so close after the election, suggesting it was timed to impact the county's proposed park bond and to help Mayor-elect Ben McAdams win the election.
But the timing issue is a red herring as it ignores the public's right to a substantive consideration of the specifics of the budget. In fact, the proposed budget and accompanying tax increase are a great example of effective government in action. Voters have twice elected fiscally-conservative Democrat Peter Corroon, and now McAdams, to the county mayor's office. They have similarly elected a majority of fiscally-conservative, moderate Republicans to the County Council. This is divided government. This is balance.
But such political balance is anathema and unrecognizable to the Utah Taxpayers Association. They prefer a Grover Norquist-type "no tax increases ever" approach, with a supermajority, one-party Legislature and executive branch that gives us such things as HB477 and abstinence-only sex education. However, recent statements confirm that, at the county level, cooler heads prevail.
In an interview with KCPW, Republican Councilman David Wilde said the budget deserves dispassionate consideration. "I think it is something to seriously be considered," said Wilde. "Overall I think the budget he presented was good."
Councilman Wilde's approach is a fair assessment of the issue and recognizes the difficulty many counties, cities and townships have faced during the recession. A cursory look in the newspaper over the last year and a half shows local governments finding it harder and harder to make cuts and maintain services. The ill-managed UTOPIA is draining the coffers of many municipal budgets, while essential services like public safety and infrastructure maintenance are in desperate need of funding.
Cities like Orem and Highland have raised taxes, after years and years of budget cuts, in a forced reckoning with the realities of funding local governments.
In Salt Lake County there hasn't been a property tax increase since 2000, during which time county government has become more streamlined, even while the demand for services like parks, recreation centers and adequate public safety protections have increased dramatically.
At some point, a growth in population and a deflated purchasing power will coalesce into a need for more revenue.
In fact, adjusted for inflation, taxpayers are paying less in taxes than they were 10 years ago. If a Salt Lake County resident paid $100 in 2000, the last time the county raised taxes, in order to keep pace with inflation that same resident would now need to pay $134. That means that, with the 17 percent increase, property tax now is still less than the value of the property tax paid 12 years ago. The property tax increase would need to be more than 34 percent just to outpace inflation. In other words, the new budget isn't just flat, it's lower than flat and dangerously close to austerity levels.
The ABU Education Fund, an affiliate of Alliance for a Better UTAH, has launched a website at www.UtahTaxFacts.org to allow Utahns to follow along.
We need an honest, balanced discussion between the mayor's office and the County Council that serves the needs of their constituents, rather than the noise of the unelected Utah Taxpayers Association.
If Salt Lake County is going to continue to provide the level of services demanded by its residents, then a balanced approach to budgeting, like that recently proposed by the Salt Lake County mayor's office, is the most responsible approach.
Maryann Martindale is executive director of the Alliance for a Better UTAH.