Dozens of local governments proposing tax hikes
By Lee Davidson
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jul 23 2013 01:01AM
Many Utahns opening property tax valuation notices arriving this week may be in for some bad news.
Nearly four dozen local governments in Utah are proposing to raise property taxes this year — twice as many as last year.
Many say they tried to avoid tax hikes during recent bad-economy years, but pressing needs are forcing them to relent now.
However, governments proposing increases — cities, counties, school districts, water districts, fire districts, mosquito abatement districts and more — must first hold "truth-in-taxation" hearings before the tax hikes are final, giving residents one more chance to protest.
Tax increases range from $297 on a $225,000 home — a 118 percent increase — in Enoch, a town of 6,000 residents near Cedar City, to a modest $1.36 hike in Lewiston, Cache County. A full list of all proposed tax increases is available here.
Sometimes multiple, overlapping local governments in the same area are raising taxes at the same time, compounding residents’ pain.
For example in Salt Lake City, the city itself is proposing to raise tax by $67.57 on a $225,000 home; Salt Lake County proposes a $56.31 hike; and the Salt Lake City School District is seeking to raise it by $24.75. The combined total increase would be $148.63.
More hikes • About one of every 11 local governments in Utah — 46 of about 520 — are proposing property tax increases this year, according to data compiled by the Utah Tax Commission. The number seeking hikes had been decreasing in recent bad-economy years since the peak of the recession, when 81 governments raised property taxes in 2008.
But this year, several now raising taxes said they could no longer wait to act.
"Because of the economy the past four or five years, we had to dig out of savings to continue to provide services" while trying to avoid tax hikes, said Rob Dotson, city manager for Enoch, which has the highest-in-the-state proposed tax increase by dollar at $297 on a $225,000 home.
"We’ve kept vital services, but cut others" in recent years, he said. But he said the city reached the point that it had to impose its first tax increase in memory, and for the first time ever is going through the truth-in-taxation process to raise them.
The next-highest tax hike by dollar amount is $229 on a $225,000 home proposed by Santaquin, exactly a 100 percent increase or doubling.
"The tax increase is for roads," said Santaquin City Manager Ben Reeves, adding it is the first property tax increase there in more than 25 years. "We have considerable issues with our roads," and said it reached the point officials could not longer defer action on them. He said Santaquin’s share of state gasoline taxes simply do not provide enough to maintain them.
Mayors statewide earlier this summer asked the Legislature to consider raising gas taxes by 5 to 10 cents a gallon because of similar complaints by many cities. The fueltax was last raised 16 years ago, when it went from 19 cents to 24.5 cents a gallon. That tax also generates less money now because cars are more fuel efficient, and people have driven less during bad-economy years.
Justified? •Royce Van Tassell, vice president of the Utah Taxpayers Association, questions the claims of some governments that they tried to avoid raising taxes in bad times, but just couldn’t afford to hold offany longer.
"If districts have budgeted correctly and said, ‘We’re only going to provide the services that are absolutely necessary, we will be conservative in our projections for revenue, and try to spend as little as possible,’ generally you don’t find yourself in a need to raise taxes even when the economy turns south," Van Tassell said.
Also as the economy improves — asindicators say it has recently — "Sales tax revenue also turns around," so that should also lessen the need for any property tax increase, he said.
Van Tassell said Utah has higher-than-average income and sales tax, but has below-average property taxes largely because of "truth-in-taxation" laws. If governments propose property tax rates that would generate more revenue than the previous year, they must advertise and hold public hearings. Such meetings canattract upset residents— sometimes hundreds of them —and threaten elected officials’ political futures.
"That testifies to what a good taxpayer-protection tool the truth-in-taxation system is," Van Tassell said. Valuation notices include the time and place of all scheduled truth-in-taxation hearings, and Van Tassell said some hearings every year sway officials to lower or skip proposed increases.
Biggest increases • Among some other big tax increases statewide are:
• Pleasant Grove is proposing a $146.03 increase on a $225,000 home, up 52.7 percent. "It is for a new police and fire station," said city administrator Scott Darrington. He said the current fire station was built in 1949, and the police station in 1977. He said the city, which last raised taxes in 1982, needs more space and worries the old structures are not safe in earthquakes.
• Tooele County proposes a $109.52 increase on a $225,000 home, up 68.6 percent. It has been in financial crisis because of the closing of the Deseret Chemical Depot, and drastic reductions in waste-mitigation fees. That has prompted deep staff and service cuts, including canceling the county fair and closing the swimming pool at the Deseret Peak recreation complex.
• Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker initially vetoed a hike of $67.57 on a $225,000 home, up 10.2 percent. But the City Council overrode that veto. The council says the increase is needed for the city’s crumbling streets, run-down parks and other deferred maintenance. It said part of the money will also keep police and fire service at current levels despite expiration of some federal grants.
• The Salt Lake City School District is also proposing a tax hike of $24.75 on a $225,000 home, up 3.1 percent. District officials say the increase is needed to maintain current services. Van Tassell said his Utah Taxpayers Association is "disappointed to see the city and school district going through truth in taxation at the same time. It’s not at all clear to us that the tax hike is necessary" for both.
• Taylorsville is proposing a $76.48 increase on a $225,000 home, up 29.4 percent. But that comes after city leaders last year raised property taxes 14.5 percent, or $35.53 on a $250,000 home. The city says the hike is needed for roads and public safety costs. "We are skeptical" of the need for back-to-back tax hikes there, Van Tassell said.
• Some other larger proposed tax increases are: Woodland Hills, up $108.65 on a $225,000 home, or 16.3 percent; Uintah City, up $100.49, or 78.4 percent; Harrisville, up $90.96, or 100 percent; and Daggett County, up $90.46, or 18.5 percent.
Some governments that propose big increases by percentage — even though the total cost per homeowner may not be as high as elsewhere — include: Farr West, up 166.2 percent, or $54.70 on a $225,000 home; Newton Cemetery Maintenance District, up 100 percent, or $12.75; Laketown Fire District, up 97.7 percent, or $26.11; and Glenwood, up 90.8 percent, or $79.08.