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Salt Lake County Council takes step to end 'surprise' tax hikes

Published August 28, 2013 7:18 am

Transparency • Budget process moved ahead so tax increases public before elections.
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The days of "surprise" tax increases in Salt Lake County appear to be over.

For the sake of transparency, Salt Lake County will move its budget-adoption process ahead by two weeks starting in the fall of 2014.

While the accelerated schedule could give county financial forecasters less reliable economic data on which to base the next year's revenue projections, it also will ensure the mayor and council inform the public of proposed county tax increases before voters take part in a general election.

That would prevent a recurrence of what happened in Salt Lake County last year. Then-Mayor Peter Corroon, a Democrat, proposed a 17 percent property tax increase to support countywide services just days after voters, who had not been told it was coming, agreed to support a $47 million bond for parks and trails.

Bond approval added $6 dollars to the property tax of the owner of a $238,000 home, the county's median value. That tax figure rose another $59 a year after the Republican-majority County Council went along with virtually all of the mayor's proposal.

Council members were besieged with complaints, many from people who said they wouldn't have voted for the parks bond if they knew the tax increase was coming.

"The public has a right to know of proposed tax increases before a general election," said Councilman Richard Snelgrove, leading advocate of an ordinance revision that moved up future budget deliberations so people don't end up feeling blindsided again.

"If we fix this, we gain back the public's trust, because we've lost some of it," he said. "It's a vote for transparency, openness and a well-informed public."

After lengthy debate about what an earlier schedule might do to the accuracy of crafting a budget, the council voted 6-1 (members Michael Jensen and Arlyn Bradshaw were absent) to make some changes.

As finally approved by the council, the mayor will be required to submit a proposed budget by Nov. 1, moved up from Nov. 15. The tentative budget that the council first begins working with will be due Oct. 18. Neither the mayor nor the council can later approve a tax increase if its potential was not raised by Nov. 1, barring a state of emergency or formal disaster declaration.

"Fair is fair," Councilman Max Burdick said of prohibiting the council, as well as the mayor, from raising taxes at a late date.

Democratic Councilman Randy Horiuchi cast the lone opposing vote, arguing that moving up the process dilutes the council's ability to come to grips with the budget reality as the latest financial numbers become available.

"This is a total dismantling of the sacred budget process," he contended. "I don't want to use the term bastardize, but I will."

"Most people want what we're recommending," retorted Council Chairman Steve DeBry. Including the mayor's office, emphasized Councilman David Wilde.

"We're supportive of transparency," said Deputy Mayor Nichole Dunn. "We can propose the mayor's budget by Nov. 1."

The enacting date was postponed until 2014 because it's too late for this year's process, which is already underway. Chief Financial Officer Darrin Casper said the delay will give his staff a season to evaluate financial impacts.

Final council approval is expected at its next meeting on Sept. 10.

mikeg@sltrib.com

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Longtime County Councilman Jim Bradley thinks the best way to avoid big tax increases like Salt Lake County experienced in 2012, after a decade of holding stable, may be to accept a series of smaller hikes that allow county revenues to keep pace with inflation.

He convinced his colleagues Tuesday that his idea has enough merit to warrant further investigation, and they encouraged him to look into the possibility of tying adjustments in property taxes and fees to the Consumer Price Index and another index that measures employment expenses. The mayor and council would not necessarily have to approve tax hikes in a given year, Bradley said, but information gathered in the process would show more precisely how much more money is needed to maintain current service levels.

No timetable was set for Bradley to "provide more information for how it will all work."