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Rolly: Locals bear the brunt of state, federal frugality

Published July 20, 2013 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The age-old story of the oldest sibling hitting the next oldest, who hits the next oldest, and down the line to the youngest, who then kicks the dog is manifest in government.

In a political culture where tax increases lead to political suicides, the burden of funding government services is passed down the food chain from a tea party-laden Congress to tax-averse state legislatures to local governments, which are most susceptible to angry residents when they have to raise taxes or cut services.

The latest example comes from the Utah Division of Water Quality, which is floating a proposed fee on local water systems that would funnel back to the division to cover funding deficiencies.

And why is the state water division facing funding deficiencies?

For an answer, try sequestration.

So, Congress can't get its act together, forcing massive federal cuts across the board, which then affects state agencies that are forced through federal mandates to perform certain duties, so they pass the cost to the local entities that have no dog to kick.

The division director, Kenneth Bousfield, says the agency is funded 75 percent by federal grants and is charged with making sure water systems in the state meet federal standards.

But the division is losing half a million dollars a year in federal cuts because of the inability of Congress and the administration to agree on a budget. And while the agency funding is cut by that much, it still must perform all the duties to insure water quality as imposed by federal mandates through the Environmental Protection Agency.

"In the last 15 years, there have been 19 new EPA rules that we are obliged to implement," Bousfield said. "There never is a corresponding increase from the feds, and now they are cutting funding, but they are not cutting their expectations of us."

In order to provide the same level of regulatory services and maintain the funding necessary to do that, says Bousfield, the division is proposing an annual fee to the local water systems of $100 per million gallons per day.

Bousfield says currently it just is a proposal and the division has scheduled a series of hearings around the state to gauge support. If there is a consensus approval, the division will propose it for the governor's next budget, which then requires approval by the Legislature.

But the Utah League of Cities and Towns already has taken a position against the idea. The league's legislative policy committee was recently briefed on the proposal and voted unanimously to oppose it.

League officials say local governments are already stressed enough in meeting the needs of their residents without having to send local revenue sources to a state agency. They say the State Legislature should meet the state funding needs without robbing counties, municipalities and local utility systems to do it.

Still, if the mechanism of using local water system fees is placed in the governor's budget and approved by lawmakers, there is not much the Utah League of Cities and Towns and its member governments can do about it.

Local governments suffered the same fate a few years ago with the Bush tax cuts. The cuts made Congress and the George W. Bush administration look like fiscally responsible heroes, but they forced devastating cuts in police, fire and other local services, and in many cases city and county tax increases to mitigate the losses.

So whatever the taxpayer saved on his or her federal form was often spent in higher local taxes.

The state has had similar bullying tendencies toward local governments. Salt Lake County was forced to impose a $5 vehicle registration fee dedicated to the planned Mountain View Corridor, a state right of way.

The 1 cent sales tax granted in 1983 to local governments was used primarily for Olympics infrastructure and other state projects until 1999, when the locals finally got to use it for themselves. And state reimbursements to counties for housing state inmates in their jails have never come close to the actual costs of housing those inmates. —