In launching her bid for Congress, Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love hit all the conservative notes — shrink government, cut taxes and grow the economy.
But her record as mayor and before that a member of the City Council tells, on its face, a different story: a property tax rate that has grown considerably in recent years and a city budget that shot up by nearly 50 percent during her tenure as mayor.
Love says it was all part of the growing pains for a town whose massive building spurt ran headfirst into a collapse in the economy. But tough steps were taken to cut spending and put the city on sound footing, and she says the record shows her conservative credentials.
“I’m a very big voice for reining in spending and saying, ‘I don’t want to see it if it’s not a government role, and I don’t want to see it if it’s not sustainable,’ ” Love said in an interview.
The mayor’s record on taxes and spending, largely unknown to the Republican delegates and voters she will be courting in the coming weeks, will be a major selling point and test in her bid for the GOP nomination in the 4th Congressional District.
Love was sworn in as a member of the City Council in 2004 in the town of just more than 3,000. Five years later, the population had exploded to 16,000-plus. New homes popped up around the city, and the budget and full-time staff, paid by the flood of building permit revenue, swelled.
But when the housing bubble burst, Saratoga Springs was hit especially hard. In 2008, facing a budget shortfall of more than $3 million, the council faced an option of a 400 percent tax increase or slashing the budget.
They did a little of both, cutting the budget by about $2 million, laying off eight of the 85 employees and — in the most controversial move — more than doubling the property tax rates, imposing a 116 percent increase.
“When the city was in trouble, we rolled up our sleeves and started to cut everything,” Love said.
At the same time, Love said the city hadn’t adjusted its property tax rate since it was incorporated and needed a reliable revenue stream instead of depending on building permits.
The City Council — including then-Councilwoman Love — voted to raise the tax rate from 0.09 percent to 0.2 percent.
‘Give us all your money’ • Dianne Hales, who lived in Saratoga Springs for more than four years, spoke out against that tax hike at the time.
“I was to the point where I was sick of government and any sort of government thinking all they have to do is raise taxes,” said Hales, who moved out of Saratoga Springs last year. “They’ve overspent and done other things, and they think it’s OK to do that. We as American people can’t do that. We can’t go to people and say, ‘Give us all your money because we’ve run out.’ ”
Since the 2008 crash, the Saratoga Springs budgets have crept upward again. In the 2009 budget year, the general fund expenses totaled $5.6 million. In the current budget year, they total nearly $9.2 million, a 64 percent increase.
At the same time, property tax rates have crept up to offset declining property value in the city.
Under Utah’s system, the rates can adjust up or down to bring in the same amount of revenue as the prior year without having to go through a truth in taxation hearing.
Saratoga Springs tax rates are now 0.31 percent, making them higher than the neighboring cities of Eagle Mountain, American Fork and Lehi.
Love, who left the City Council and was elected mayor of the city in 2009, said those cities have much higher utility rates and the growing budget reflects the demands of a growing city.
For example, Saratoga Springs now has a justice court that operates off the fines it brings in. There also has been an increase in parks and recreation spending.
Catching up • Love said the city has also had to bounce back from its spendthrift ways. Highway maintenance had been put on hold, so they are trying to catch up with that. As building permits have surged in recent months, the city has had to hire new building inspectors to replace those who were let go during the budget slashing of 2008.
“We had a bunch of catching up. Now we’re completely sustainable,” Love said. “If Saratoga Springs doesn’t have one more resident again, you’ll see some of those [expenses] start to decrease in some areas.”
Former state lawmaker Carl Wimmer, who also is seeking the Republican nomination for Congress in the 4th District, wouldn’t comment directly on Love’s record except to say, “Mayor Love is a friend of mine, and we each have our own record to run on. I’m a fiscal hawk.”
Wimmer, who served five years as a representative from Herriman, added: “I’ve never voted for a tax increase, and I never will.”
There have been times when Love resisted the Saratoga Springs Council but was overruled, which is possible because the mayor has no veto power and votes only to break ties.
Love says when the council voted to build a new public works building, she fought it, believing the project would be too costly.
“I said no, but it was something the council said it absolutely needed,” she said, “and so at that point, that was one of the votes that I lost.”
According to an analysis last year by the Utah Taxpayers Association, the cost of Saratoga Springs’ government totals about $571 per resident — ranking it 22nd of 49 cities of a comparable size.
Love said her budget-cutting episode in 2008 remains a formative experience and sets her apart from other candidates, since she is the only one of the 4th District contenders who had to lay people off and cut programs.
“2008 was a huge learning experience, and I would not be where I am without those experiences,” she said.