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Salt Lake County Council looking to make tax hikes more transparent

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Salt Lake County Councilman Randy Horiuchi

Salt Lake County Council members got an earful in November when then-Mayor Peter Corroon unveiled a 17 percent increase in countywide property taxes just two days after a general election in which voters agreed to pay higher taxes for a bond to expand and improve parks.

Most callers were incensed, said Republican Councilman Richard Snelgrove, that the tax increase was not disclosed by Corroon, a Democrat who was not seeking a third term, before the bond vote.

If it had been revealed earlier, Snelgrove said Tuesday, residents battered by the county’s average $64-a-year property-tax bump might have been less likely to endorse an additional $6 annual charge to fund $47 million in bonds for parks. The bond passed by more than 43,000 votes (197,499 to 154,322).

“In the eyes of the public, we were a bit disingenuous,” said Snelgrove, main proponent of proposed ordinance revisions that would require the mayor to inform the council and public of possible tax increases by Nov. 1 of each year.

With this change, he added, “citizens will know before a general election or a bond election. They’ll be fully informed and can reach a conclusion based on all of the information, rather than [just part because] a government agency is holding back on something. … This squarely puts Salt Lake County where it needs to be — on the side of a fully informed citizenry.”

County Council Chairman Steve DeBry, who worked with Snelgrove and Democratic Councilman Sam Granato on the proposed changes, concurred on the need to prevent future surprises for taxpayers.

“My office was inundated with letters and emails,” said DeBry, also a Republican, describing the common reaction as one of, “We were backdoored. We were blindsided. Why wasn’t this tax increase out there before the vote on the park bond?”

The GOP-majority council seemed ready to approve the revisions until Democratic Councilman Randy Horiuchi requested another week to consider the matter so that county financial officers could review the ramifications of requiring tax-increase announcements two weeks before the mayor is required legally to submit a proposed budget.

“The timelines on our budget are so fierce, and they seem to get tougher every year,” he said. “I worry about the added difficulty.”

Horiuchi then intensified the tone of the discussion, adding that “I’m also for transparency, but I’m also for no stupidity.”

Snelgrove and fellow Republican David Wilde clearly bristled at Horiuchi’s suggestion that the proposed ordinance lacked intelligence.

“The public deserves to know, when they’re going to vote on a big bond, that they’re going to face increased taxes, too,” Wilde said. “It’s not stupid at all. It’s very appropriate.”

Added Snelgrove: “What’s stupid is not being able to move the [tax disclosure] clock up 10 days or so to get the job done. What’s stupid is not being fully transparent and holding our cards close to our vest, disenfranchising citizens of something they have every right to know.”

Democratic Councilman Jim Bradley said that what happened last year is a reflection of a weakness in the county’s annual budgeting process. The existing system influences councils to hold off on annual tax increases until they can be put off no longer, Bradley said. But by then, after six or seven years of procrastination, the ultimate increase turns out to be large. He would like to see budgetary changes that allow for annual property-tax adjustments to help the county cope with inflationary pressures.

The debate will resume at Tuesday’s council meeting.

mikeg@sltrib.com

Twitter: @sltribmikeg

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