The Utah Museum of Natural History won't go untouched by opposition as it seeks a $15 million bond to complete its new home under construction near Red Butte Canyon.
Rep. Carl Wimmer rallied against the measure Wednesday at the Utah Capitol, calling on voters to reject a tax for an attraction that, although worthy of voluntary donations, shouldn't put an additional strain on residents' pocketbooks.
"The bottom line is this: We all love museums," Wimmer said. "But now is not the time. Now is not the time to raise taxes $15 million. We are standing up to say that the taxpayers in this county are taxed enough."
The Herriman Republican was backed by a handful of conservative legislators, including Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, and Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, as well as organizations such as the Utah Eagle Forum.
The Utah Museum of Natural History wants voters to approve a property tax increase to finish its 165,000-square-foot museum in Salt Lake City's foothills. Although the museum already has collected $86.4 million from public and private sources, it needs an additional $15 million to finish the exhibits.
The bond would raise property taxes about $2.40 a year on a $265,000 home.
Museum Director Sarah George says the measure is desperately needed to protect the venue's collection of Utah relics, such as an ice age-era bear from the Kearns area and ice crystals formed in the Great Salt Lake.
Not only is the current building on Presidents Circle at the University of Utah vulnerable to natural disasters such as earthquakes, but it also lacks proper temperature controls and suffers chronic plumbing problems. Just last week, the museum had to sop up water from a three-quarter-century-old ceiling pipe that broke near the anthropology collection.
"We would really like to protect those collections better than we can right now," George said.
The money would go toward education as well. While the museum serves 20,000 students a year, officials say the demand is much greater. The facility expects to host 50,000 students during its first year in a building that will nearly double the museum's current 89,000 square feet.
Although Wimmer urged residents to donate to the museum Wednesday, he said it is wrong to force them to do it through a tax hike.
"We are concerned," he said, "that, at a time when people are losing their homes, at a time when people are losing their jobs, that we are going to raise taxes to build a museum."
The business-backed Utah Taxpayers Association remains neutral on the proposal. Sen. Howard Stephenson, the Draper Republican who heads the association, said the measure does two things right: It proposes the tax during a general election, when voter turnout is higher, and it clearly conveys how much the project would cost and where the money would be spent.
"Having seen the proposal and the current museum," Stephenson said, "we felt that it was important to have this decision for a tax increase decided by the voter."
Although George recognizes the economic difficulties county residents face, she said voters ultimately will decide if it is something they can afford.
"There is no question that this is a really tough time for people," she said. "We are giving them a chance to decide if the value outweighs the cost."
What the bond proposal says
Shall Salt Lake County, Utah, be authorized to issue general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $15 million and to mature in no more than 15 years from the date or dates of issuance of such bonds for the purpose of paying a portion of the costs of acquiring, improving and constructing facilities for the Utah Museum of Natural History and related facilities, and, to the extent necessary, for the refunding, at or prior to the maturity thereof, of bonds authorized hereby.