It seems clear that Salt Lake City residents soon will see their property taxes increase. The question is whether it will be this year or next.
Mayor Ralph Becker proposed no such tax increase in his budget recommendation to the City Council. He wants to give residents a year to learn why the money is needed and how it would be spent.
But at least two council members, Chairman Kyle LaMalfa and Charlie Luke, believe it would save tax dollars in the long run if the city imposed an increase in the 2014 budget year to begin fixing long-neglected streets while maintaining police services without the cuts Becker proposed.
During the Great Recession and afterward, the council has dipped into the capital improvements fund in order to balance the budget.
That has put the city far behind where it should be in keeping up with needed infrastructure repairs and replacements. City elected officials mostly agree that catching up while keeping up will be expensive, requiring a revenue boost. On Tuesday, the City Council identified another $13 million in needed infrastructure upgrades.
LaMalfa and Luke are making a reasonable case for taking the plunge now rather than letting the backlog grow for another year. Adding about $7 million more to the 2014 budget would help put the city closer to the goals in its 10-year plan, they argue. To raise that amount, the council would have to boost property taxes about 12 percent, or just under $50 per year on a home valued at $250,000.
The pavement on more than half the city's streets are in "fair" or "very poor to marginal" condition. An overlay treatment, in which a thin new layer of asphalt is laid over the existing roadway, should give a street about seven more years of life. But if the street doesn't get the overlay in time, a complete repaving is needed, at a much higher cost.
The politics of a tax increase is always tricky. No elected official wants to be seen as advocating for higher taxes in an election year. Councilman Stan Penfold may be the only incumbent seeking re-election this year, and he is a vocal opponent of raising the tax for the coming fiscal year.
LaMalfa and Luke won't face voters this year; Councilman Carlton Christensen is not seeking another term, and two other incumbents might not campaign for re-election. If a tax hike is necessary, the timing is politically crucial.
But politics aside, timing is even more crucial for financial reasons. In order to keep infrastructure in repair and avoid paying more later, taxpayers should support a moderate increase this year.
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