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Scores of cities statewide are passing resolutions asking counties to place on the ballot this year a proposed sales-tax increase for local roads and mass transit.

Widespread city support could give county leaders political cover if they choose to take the never-popular step of seeking higher taxes, and do it sooner rather than later.

But critics such as the Utah Taxpayers Association oppose holding the election during this year's municipal runoffs when turnout is usually light. They want to wait until next year's presidential election when far more voters will head to the polls.

"To do it this year just seems unfair. We're going to have a low voter turnout," said Billy Hesterman, vice president of the association. Waiting for 2016 would allow voters to "really have a say about the taxes levied on them."

But at least 55 Utah cities and towns have passed or are considering resolutions calling for the tax hike to be put on ballots this year, saying the need is urgent.

"The longer you wait, the more you spend" because studies show that maintenance that normally costs $1 will cost $6 if delayed, and rehabilitation is needed, and $10 if replacement is eventually required, said Lynn Pace, senior adviser to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. "If you can't find $1 now, you'll have to find $6 or more later."

The local-option vote on a quarter-cent sales tax hike (0.25 cent per $1 purchase) is allowed by a new law, HB362. It will also raise the state's gasoline tax by 5 cents a gallon Jan. 1, the first boost in 18 years, with automatic inflation-indexed increases to follow.

In areas with transit districts, such as the Utah Transit Authority along the Wasatch Front, 40 percent of that new sales-tax revenue would go to cities, 20 percent to counties for local transportation needs and 40 percent for transit. In rural areas, 40 percent would go to cities and 60 percent to counties.

Needs • Sandy, population 90,000, is one of the largest cities to pass a resolution so far, and the needs it outlines are typical of many.

Nicole Martin, Sandy communications director, said it has a list of $50 million worth of city road projects it has been unable to fund. "That is for widenings and extensions, and does not include maintenance costs," she said, adding the city also has $8 million in unfunded bike and pedestrian trails.

Sandy receives $2.9 million a year from its share of state gas tax, Martin said. Because that doesn't come close to meeting the city's needs, it has added another $2.4 million a year for transportation from its general funds.

She said the upcoming gas tax hike will give the city an expected extra $500,000 a year, and the sales-tax hike, if approved, would bring another $1.7 million annually. "It is very needed in a [growing] city like ours."

Ivins, population 7,400, is one of the smaller cities to pass a resolution.

"There's no question that the amount of money raised through the tax on gasoline now is insufficient to maintain the highways," said Councilman George Elwell Jr. He said the city also has had to raid its general fund to keep up with its roads, and the sales-tax hike is needed.

On the transit side, UTA has said the sales-tax boost could increase its budget by 13 percent. The agency has said it is looking at using the extra money to boost the frequency of buses and trains, expand nighttime and weekend service, and shorten traveling time with, perhaps, more express routes.

Support, opposition • Also pushing for an election sooner rather than later is a group of businesses called the Utah Transportation Coalition. It points to studies saying Utah has an $11.3 billion shortfall for priority transportation projects during the next 25 years. The group has helped push the resolutions being adopted by cities to prod a quick election.

"By enhancing and preserving our local roads, active transportation and transit system, we'll help to keep Utah one of the best places to work, to live and to play," said David Golden, chairman of the coalition and executive vice president of Wells Fargo's Commercial Banking Group.

But the Utah Taxpayers Association's Hesterman says user fees such as gas taxes or registration fees should fund transportation "instead of hiding the tax in the sales tax, where most people don't notice it and don't think about it."


County concerns • County leaders are weighing the pros and cons of holding the election this year, and whether to proceed (or delay) in unison. Officials in Salt Lake, Utah, Davis and Weber counties all say no decision has been made yet. They must decide by early August to have it on the November ballot.

Wasatch Front counties "are trying to coordinate their efforts so that they go [to election] at a single time to ensure that voters are getting concise and uniform information about what the tax does," said Lincoln Shurtz, governmental affairs director for the Utah Association of Counties.

Whenever they choose to proceed, smaller rural counties "are likely going to try to piggyback" on that because all of Utah is essentially one media market, he said, and it may be easier to spread information everywhere at the same time.

Utah County Commission Chairman Larry Ellertson said that in discussions with cities and other counties, "in general there is a belief that we need [the tax hike], and we should move forward as quickly as we can." But some challenges exist that could hurt the effort this year.

For example, Ellertson said, some cities in his county may put bond and tax-increase questions of their own on the November ballot. Davis County Commissioner Bret Millburn said the school district there and several cities also are expected to do the same.

"Because people don't really care for taxes," Ellertson said, "part of my concern is if you load up the ballot with tax-related issues, you may hurt the effort."

Another problem is that in a city election year, unincorporated-area residents usually do not vote on anything. They will this year in Salt Lake County because of a question on whether to form such areas into a metro township.

"Counties are still working through that to ensure that they can successfully run the election and not confuse voters about whether they should be voting," Shurtz said. "Trying to encourage broad voter turnout is something of concern for both cities and counties."

Weber County Commission Chairman Kerry Gibson said his county is watching how cities line up in deciding whether to proceed. The same is true in other counties.

"We need to have cities on board with us if we are going to do [the tax increase]," said Utah County's Ellertson. "If they value it, they are going to have to sell it." —

A flood of resolutions

At least 55 cities and towns have passed or are considering resolutions urging counties to hold an election this year on raising sales taxes for transportation.

They include: Alpine, Alta, Bluffdale, Brian Head, Castle Valley, Cedar Fort, Central Valley, Cottonwood Heights, Daniel, Draper, Elk Ridge, Ephraim, Fairview, Fountain Green, Genola, Glenwood, Goshen and Gunnison.

Also, Hanksville, Harrisville, Henefer, Herriman, Highland, Hildale, Holladay, Ivins, Lindon, Marriott-Slaterville, Midvale, Morgan, Monticello, Murray, Nephi, North Salt Lake, Oakley, Orem and Pleasant Grove.

And Redmond, Riverdale, Salem, Salina, Salt Lake City, Sandy, Santa Clara, Sigurd, South Jordan, South Ogden, Sunset, Toquerville, Tremonton, Uintah, Washington, Washington Terrace, West Jordan and Woods Cross.

Source: Utah Transportation Coalition