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State Sen. Lincoln Fillmore says too many special districts for water, sewer, recreation, fire, police, mosquito abatement, cemeteries and more have appointed members who can raise taxes without ever facing voters for election.
"If I have the power to raise your taxes, you ought to have the power to hold me accountable," he says. "That is a flaw in the law that we need to correct."
But LeGrand Bitter, executive director of the Utah Association of Special Districts, warns that early drafts of legislation that Fillmore, R-South Jordan, proposes could lead to more and worse taxation without representation.
He says it could result in votes on tax hikes by some elected officials who live outside the special districts, or require two-thirds majority votes for tax hikes that he argues "could allow the minority to rule the majority."
Fillmore made a pitch for change recently at a conference hosted by the Utah Taxpayers Association.
He says some special districts already are directly elected by people in their districts or can raise taxes only if voters approve it on the ballot.
"I don't want to change those," he says, adding they have proper accountability.
But he seeks changes for some independent special districts that have appointed members, or a mix of appointed and elected members, that have the ability to raise taxes.
Bitter says if a majority of members "at the time of their appointment" are elected officials of some sort such as serving elsewhere as a county commissioner or a city council member then the special district may go through the state's truth-in-taxation process and raise taxes on its own without approval of other entities.
Because some board members who initially were elected officials may later have left office, it is possible that many or a majority of board members will not directly face voters after raising taxes.
"It circumvents the representation that ought to be required any time government has the power to raise taxes," Fillmore says.
For example, he says, the Unified Fire Authority in Salt Lake County can and does raise property taxes without being directly elected. Its members are appointed by the county and the 10 cities it serves.
He proposes in such circumstances to require the city, county or other legislative body that appoints members to ratify any proposed tax increase. "Two-thirds of those bodies would have to approve it," he says.
"It's going to be something of a heavy lift to do that," he notes. So Fillmore says that will force special districts to say, "We're really going to sharpen our pencil and make sure this is the best and only way to do this" including looking more closely at cutting back or "not giving massive bonuses to leadership."
Under his proposal, elected officials acting in "meetings that are regularly attended" by the public "will consider tax increases … and then be held accountable at the next election."
Bitter sees some problems.
He says proposals could lead to some members of county commissions or city councils voting on tax increases in special service districts where they personally do not live. He points out that many districts do not cover the entire limits of a city or county.
"That's taxation without representation, too," he says.
Bitter also argues appointed boards often include residents who are experts on such things as water delivery, sewage treatment or mosquito abatement. They are more knowledgeable and representative, he adds, than proposed alternatives.
Still, Bitter says, special districts are open to tweaking the law and are willing to work with Fillmore on possible reforms. He cites an example: One change districts would support may be requiring a majority of an independent special district be elected officials of some sort, rather than just such officials "at the time of their appointment."