Salt Lake County Council asks its cities whether it should raise taxes to boost transportation funding

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) A car is about to drive over a section of the damaged road in the intersection of 100 South and University in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018.

The fate of $58 million in potential new annual sales tax revenue to fund transit and road projects in Salt Lake County now resides with the county’s two dozen local governing bodies.

The County Council voted 6-1 on Tuesday to seek support from enough localities to comprise a two-thirds majority of the county’s 1.1 million residents. The 0.25 percent tax increase — one penny for each $4 spent — would set the sales tax rate at 7.1 percent in most of the county.

The measure adopted by the council sets a June 22 deadline to reach the two-thirds majority. One city, Millcreek, has already voted to endorse the move. Mayor Jeff Silvestrini told county lawmakers on Tuesday that his council voted unanimously because the revenue “greatly aids the residents of my city in funding road repairs.”

Elsewhere, though, the county’s move adds a wrinkle to tax discussions. In Salt Lake City, council members are expected to vote May 1 on a half-point city-only sales tax increase. Part of that revenue would fund city-specific transit and road improvements. If both tax increases go through, city sales tax would climb to 7.6 percent.

Matt Rojas, spokesman for Mayor Jackie Biskupski, said the city was “assessing what the county did and what additional steps the city has to take.” For now, it is focused on passing its own tax plan.

The County Council’s vote fulfills, at least partly, the promise of SB136, a transportation funding bill that the Legislature passed and the governor signed. The law resurrects a local sales tax option for transit and road projects in counties where a 2015 transportation referendum failed to pass. Salt Lake County voters rejected it by a 51-49 percent margin.

County lawmakers could have done a straight up-or-down vote on the tax increase, or they could have put the matter to another voter referendum. Instead, citing the direct benefit of the transportation dollars to cities and towns, and stressing the importance of local control, the county asked for local buy-in.

“We’re not taking a position,” Councilman Michael Jensen said. “We’re letting the cities and municipalities be the ones to take the position. And if they were to reach that [two-thirds] threshold, then it would go into effect.”

Even if the supermajority threshold isn’t reached, the county could act on its own or authorize the referendum — a move council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she would not support.

“We trust our cities to know what they need, and so we’re going to empower them to make that decision,” she said. “If the cities say, ‘No, we don’t need this,’ then I’m done.”

The lone dissenter, Councilman Richard Snelgrove, said he was “uneasy” with what he described as an “end run in order to get this tax implemented” so “no one can take responsibility for raising taxes.”

Councilwoman Jenny Wilson characterized it as the exact opposite.

“We’re now saying to our local governments, ‘Do you want this?’” she said. “We are all having accountability in this.”

If enough local governments were to endorse the move, the county initially would use revenue from the additional income to pay off debt on regional transportation projects. After June 2019, as set forth in the state law, the revenue would be split 40-40-20 among the Utah Transit Authority, cities and the county, respectively.

Another safeguard in the law would allow cities to vote on the tax if counties don’t take action by June 2020.